Break the Stigma!
Kaylee – Virginia
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 1 in 5 youth ages 13-18 have, or will have, a serious mental illness. In fact, 37% of students with a mental health condition age 14 and older dropout of school and suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death in youth ages 10-24. These facts were unknown to me until I began struggling with depression and anxiety. Undiagnosed, I was scared and felt I had no way to ask for help as there is a stigma surrounding mental illness. Like most, I suffered in silence. Some days were spent in bed, hoping no one asked to make plans, and others were spent staring at mounds of work needed to be completed. I was lost and felt alone; however, there was always one thing that could still motivate me into action: my friends. It turned out my friends were also suffering, and it occurred to me that no resources were available to guide students in my school. If my school was not equipped to provide resources, the students attending other schools in my city would most likely be without support as well. Therefore, I took a very small step to hopefully make a big difference. I wanted to educate students and teachers within my high school and the surrounding high schools. I felt so passionately about this issue that I made it my Girl Scout Gold Award project.
I met with my local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and asked to utilize their resources. I took their information and created pamphlets perfect for students to bring home. The variety of resources covered navigating insurance, helping friends, helping yourself, and so much more. These resources included posters which were displayed within each high school. Along with this, I designed and built several pamphlet shelves that I decorated with inspiring and positive messages. These pamphlet shelves stored the pamphlets within the high schools in my city. I also spoke with each principal and we discussed ways to inform their staff and students. The principals mentioned the possibility of having a professional come to speak to their staff to encourage teachers to recognize mental illnesses as not shameful. I also created a Public Service Announcement video to play on each school’s video morning announcements to alert students of the location of the resources and destigmatize mental illness. Now each school in my city has a multitude of resources and contact information to better help their students. Over 11,000 high school students have viewed the video, passed posters in the hallway or accessed the resources now present in their school libraries.
My project has grown farther than I could have imagined. Not only have I now implemented my project within six of my city’s high schools, but I have now expanded to 24 Boys and Girls Clubs in the surrounding area and I am in contact with a local YWCA to place resources in their shelters and counseling center. Each organization expressed the lack of mental health resources in each of their buildings and acknowledged the struggle of their members. Although this is a small difference within the organizations, each building mentioned the huge difference it would have. Many members are from multicultural or low-income communities that have an even higher stigma surrounding mental illnesses. Teaching the children and families that their mental health matters can lower the use of drugs, lower the chance of dropping out of school, and lower the suicide rate within these communities. Currently, I am working on contacting each of these organizations to encourage a professional to speak to families to allow them to understand the impact mental health has.
The project also has a social media presence to encourage people outside my local area to stand-up for individuals living with mental illnesses. The Break the Stigma webpage (https://gsbreakthestigma.wixsite.com/website) is the platform for the public profile of my project. It provides information and links to educational resources. The site is used to post updates about Break the Stigma and information about the efforts of other advocates. Daily posts of positive messages and links to mental health resources are also provided on Facebook and Instagram.
The step I took was a small and easy one that can easily be replicated anywhere. The impact mental health has is a global one. However, bringing resources to schools and community organizations destigmatizes mental illness as more people begin talking about it. Providing speakers to these organizations also shows that professionals are willing to speak on the subject and talk to parents about the results of mental illnesses and how it can impact their children and family. Overall, our mental health is not something to be taken lightly. It impacts what we do, what we desire, and what we don’t do every day of our lives. Taking the time to talk about mental health is a simple step that slowly chips away at a long-hardened stigma. This step needs to be brought to schools and organizations everywhere. We need to start a conversation on mental health and erase the stigma Even if a student does not access the resources today, my goal is that they have learned something about mental illnesses to help break the stigma and potentially reach out for help in the future or to help another person they see struggling. The greatest outcome I can hope for from my project, is to be able to save one life.