As Solome Tibebu wandered through the corridors of Eden Prairie High School (EPHS) for the first time in more than a decade, a torrent of memories flickered in her mind like old home movies. “It was surreal being back,” says Tibebu, a 2008 EPHS graduate, who lives in San Francisco. “For better or worse, to be honest, it was a very anxious time in my life.”
While at EPHS, the Eden Prairie native battled severe anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), propelling her to start Anxiety In Teens as a sophomore in 2006. The non-profit has grown into a nationwide online resource for youth with anxiety and other mental health disorders and their families to find information, inspiration and community.
Tibebu returned last October to her alma mater to take center stage as part of the Foundation for Eden Prairie Schools’ Beyond the Diploma alumni speaker series. The 29-year-old founder and executive director of Anxiety In Teens was the third EPHS alumni since 2017 to come home to talk about the path of success they’ve carved out since graduating.
While she stood looking out at the audience, some faces she recognized as former teachers, Tibebu felt older and wiser. “It was a nice reflection on how far I’ve come in managing my anxiety and developing new skills to maintain my emotions, whether it be concerning the anxiety disorder or relationships with other people,” she says.
Afterward, Eric Hanson, Tibebu’s seventh-grade social studies teacher at Central Middle School, gave her a hug and told her how proud he was of her. “It’s one of the best things about being a teacher is seeing a student go off and do stuff that’s changing the world and making a difference, and that’s what she’s doing,” Hanson says.
SHARING HER STORY
Since high school, Tibebu has been a steadfast mental health and patient advocate. She travels the country speaking at colleges or associations on such topics as her work with Anxiety In Teens, innovations in mental health technology and how to support young adults in pursuing entrepreneurship.
Building her website as a teen piqued her interest in entrepreneurship, which was her major at the University of St. Thomas (UST) in St. Paul. Her “day job” is working as an investor in digital health startups at Affiniti VC. She also began a monthly mental health tech startup newsletter called Re-Think: Behavioral Health Innovation. “A stigma remains around mental health, but that’s (easing), and it’s a lot easier to talk about it,” she says. “I think society is recognizing the cost mental health issues have on everyone, and I’m excited about the intersection of mental health technology and innovation.”
Tibebu has told her own story many times, including during a TEDx talk and interviews with many national media outlets. She does so as a message of hope to those young adults fighting their own mental health battles. “There’s tons of evidence-based treatment for all of these mental health issues,” she says. “It just takes time to find the right combination of things that you need to do as an individual to get the right fit.”
That’s not easy, Tibebu admits, even for her. A few years ago while living in New York City, her symptoms returned. It was a “hard realization” that her OCD was a chronic condition.
“I did all the same things that worked before. I focused on my sleep and my nutrition, but also finding the right therapist, who has a specialty in OCD,” she says. “That combination between medication and hard work really helped me get to a better place.”
Amy DeSmidt, an outside facilitator for Anxiety In Teens’ seasonal online expressive writing fellowship program for college-aged students, says compassion is at the heart of everything Tibebu does. “I’m impressed with her ability to put her own story out there and talk unabashedly about it,” says DeSmidt, who volunteers her time like everyone else affiliated with Anxiety In Teens. “Because she knows someone will listen to it, and it will resonate, and it helps them.”’
Tibebu says her symptoms, including separation anxiety and panic attacks in which she feared that someone died in her family, first surfaced while she was a student at Central Middle School.
“I was constantly in the counseling department, calling my parents to see if they were okay,” recalls Tibebu, whose parents moved to Minneapolis since her graduation. Her OCD symptoms began in high school. The National Institute of Mental Health defines OCD as a disorder in which a person has uncontrollable, reoccurring thoughts and behaviors that he/she feels the urge to repeat.
If Tibebu didn’t touch something symmetrical in shape a certain amount of times, she feared she would get pregnant. “As a 15-year-old girl, who hadn’t even held hands with boys, that was totally unrealistic,” she says. “But you can just imagine how I’m trying to explain this to my dad.”
After going through several therapists and medications, she found a treatment plan that helped. But, her struggles drove her to find out as much as she could on anxiety and OCD. Tibebu remembers spending many Friday nights reading in Barnes & Noble in Eden Prairie Center.
“That self-education was so empowering for me and normalizing,” she says. Tibebu searched online for answers but didn’t find much geared toward teens. “That’s when I took out my notebook and said, ‘I’m going to create this website,’” she recalls.
Conn McCartan, former EPHS principal, remembers Tibebu coming to his office as a student and telling him her story and her plans for the website. “It was this very adult conversation about what degree does the principal of her high school understand this is something going on with a lot of kids,” recalls McCartan, now the executive director of the Foundation for EP Schools.
Anxiety In Teens began as a blog. “As I was hoping to get more information, it became a therapeutic process to write,” Tibebu says. Eventually, some of her fellow UST students began to contribute. Today, college-aged students enrolled in the fellowship writing program post articles on the website, focusing on their own struggles with mental health or on a researched topic. A virtual support group through video conferencing with a facilitator helps participants from across the country connect. “They have a powerful story that they can use to help others,” she says.
Shaymus Dunn, a 21-year-old college junior diagnosed with OCD more than two years ago, was in the program last summer. “I went through my own battles, I guess, and I found myself in a better position than I was,” says Dunn, who lives in Lowell, Mass., near Boston. “I thought writing for (the website) would be a good way for me to share my story and try to help other kids,”
Dunn says he didn’t have any visible OCD symptoms. “The first thing people think about with OCD is everything has to be neat, and you wash your hands a hundred times a day,” he says. “For me, it was internal. I was dealing with a lot of thoughts that I was confused about.”
Dunn says the OCD was at its worst for him while he was attending college away from home. He decided to transfer to the University of Massachusetts- Lowell, where he could live at home while taking classes. “I have come a long way,” says the accounting major. “I don’t think about it too much anymore. If I’m having a bad day, I’ve learned how to deal with it. I’m on the right track.”
After all these years, the website remains a labor of love for Tibebu. While professional advice is critical when it comes to mental health issues, she is encouraged how peer support models have been advancing. She thinks Anxiety In Teens can play a role in that trend. “The feedback I’m getting from young adults, who have done this program, is that when they manage their anxiety, they want to get into advocacy,” Tibebu says. “They want to give back and do something, but they don’t know how. This writing program is not just a support group, it’s about doing something, about giving back.”
For more information on its fellowship program or volunteer opportunities, click here. Parents of a young person who has struggled with mental health are also invited to write for the site.