Five years after her death, Cameron Gallagher's wish of ending the stigma against mental illness is continuing to come true.
The Virginia teenager had struggled with depression before her sudden death due to an undiagnosed heart condition.
The 16-year-old girl, who collapsed and died just after crossing the finish line in her first half-marathon, shared a desire with her mother that people talk more about mental illness, recalled her Encinitas-based uncle Jonathan Gallagher.
"[Cameron] said, 'You know, I have friends who battle cancer or some kind of disease, and everyone rallies around them. But if I talk about depression, I'm weird and they alienate me. We're the ones, if anything, that need to be speaking to people about it,'" Jonathan remembered his niece saying.
The girl had shared with her mom that she wanted to create a 5K event to raise awareness for teens struggling with mental health issues. Three days after Cameron’s death, her parents opened their daughter’s bedroom and discovered notes detailing just how much she had planned already, including gathering corporate sponsorships.
The Gallaghers knew the best way to honor Cameron's legacy was to bring the event to fruition.
"When you look at the tragic passing of the child that gives you a torch and says, 'Now take this and go change the world,' it's hard not to have a passion for it," Jonathan said.
Five years ago, the family, through its Cameron K. Gallagher Foundation, presented the first SpeakUp 5K event, following the teen's original plans for a no-pressure event suitable for walkers and runners of all abilities. The run has since been held across the country, including in San Diego, where it will be presented again on April 14.
Jonathan, who is organizing the San Diego event at Embarcadero Marina Park South., believes it is critical for people to be aware of the mental health issues that teenagers can face.
About one in five youth aged 13 to 18 experiences a severe mental disorder, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
In addition to his work with the SpeakUp 5K, Jonathan has also begun speaking about the issue at local high schools, including Torrey Pines High School and Canyon Crest Academy, to encourage students to talk to loved ones if they are struggling.
Typically, the San Diego event has had about 400 participants and between 60 to 80 volunteers. Jonathan is hoping to double those numbers this year.
The event will also benefit Rady Children's Hospital's pediatric behavioral health division. Jonathan said while the fundraising is a positive aspect, it’s also important that more people understand teenage mental illness and not just brush it off before it's too late.
"If you think about many charitable races, the most important thing they're doing is raising money," he said. "We want to raise money but there are really two important things we're trying to achieve. We want to raise money to have an impact but also spread the word. The message of speaking up is free. The more people that are participating, we're simply winning by spreading the word, getting the voice out there and letting people know that it's important to speak up and there are places they can go. ... It's very exciting to see the movement that Cameron's dream has turned into and the impact she's having."
For more information about the event and to sign up to participate, visit www.ckgfoundation.org/sandiego/.