No More Silence
Lydia – Virginia
I was only 13 when I heard my own demographic had one of the highest suicide rates in the world. “Why did Selena take her life?” Confused and young, I remained silent, until Dr. Sohn, a psychotherapist, invited me to join the Washington Christian Counseling Institute (WCCI) Youth Council. With 11 other Korean-American teens, mental health professionals trained us to support peers dealing with depression. Wanting to make a difference, we applied for and won a county-wide grant toward youth-led mental health stigma reduction programs for the Korean-American community, where the stigma is particularly enduring. Stunned by the cultural taboo that stopped candid conversation around this, my freshman year I made it my goal to break the stigma and reverse this disease.
This leads me to my first idea that I believe could promote better health and well-being in communities: first, facilitating communication by educating teenagers about mental health topics. Although, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 1 in 5 teens experience a serious mental illness, many remain silenced or are unable to recognize this due to lack of education about the topic. I believe more youth councils should be established focusing on raising mental health awareness, including some specialized by race in order to best cultivate discussions where culture is understood. For example, in my WCCI youth-council, we were able to candidly address issues such as saving face or the stigma surrounding mental illness that is particular to the Korean-American community. This allowed for very deep discussions because we all came from a place of cultural understanding.
With the grant, I was asked to present on suicide to five Korean-American church youth groups. Our team collaborated to present a PowerPoint on mental illnesses and their relation to Korean-Americans youth groups in Fairfax County. Though intimidating to present to 200 teenagers, the music video we created on depression was well received and made its way to the Fairfax County Twitter page. Afterward, I initiated a survey to gather data on stress from 200 Korean-Americans. Eight teenagers ended up joining our team, leaving me emboldened and hopeful. Sophomore year, Dr. Sohn asked me to represent our team as one of three panelists discussing suicide prevention at a showing of Unmasked, a student-made documentary on Palo Alto’s alarming suicide rates. Slowly but surely, we encouraged conversation on this topic within the Korean-American community, cumulatively bringing mental health awareness to over 400 teenagers.
This leads to the second idea to promote better health and well-being among communities: teens implementing what they have learned in a student-led movement to spread mental health awareness. From experience, I’ve found that it’s so much more powerful to spread mental health awareness as a fellow teenager. Through workshops, facilitating presentations, being real with their stories, utilizing social media and creating documentaries, students have the world at their fingertips in spreading awareness about mental health.
Six days after I spoke on the panel, shockingly, my classmate Randy took his life, the third in recent years. This crisis transcended the Korean-American world and landed straight into my class. “Why did Randy take his life?” Deeply moved, I wanted to create a club where everyone felt accepted. A transfer student myself, I understood feeling lost at a 3,000-student school. Even nationally, Parkland and Santa Fe sounded like broken records. Then, right before my 17th birthday, that statistic became even more personal. My good friend Beth was absent from school for three weeks—her father took his life. Even with all this mental health training, I did not know what to say. I listened, gave hugs, but we needed more. After all those presentations how could I stay silent? So, I applied to start the club. After contacting my principal, I was sent to the club director who interviewed me multiple times. Two rejections later, I was discouraged but determined. He finally agreed after my third application. Four teachers rejected my sponsor proposal too, but I could not give up. Finally, at the last hour, a new counselor agreed to sponsor the club. I was elated and truly thankful.
This leads me to my third and final idea: starting mental health awareness clubs in schools. The one place where many teenagers can be reached and spend most of their time in are in the school setting. Breaching that gap between counselor and student, student-led mental health awareness clubs can work to promote positive thinking and facilitate an inclusive student culture. These clubs can implement ideas one and two perfectly, by encouraging education about mental health topics and providing implementation through action of spreading awareness about these topics.
Launching this club was daunting, so I asked for help. I met with the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention and a psychology professor for guidance. I joined the Our Minds Matter, a movement that brings mental awareness to schools, and asked Beth and another friend to join the leadership team. Genuinely passionate about helping others, I dreamt of a place where all could feel safe and be real. Unsure how many would attend our first meeting, I was overjoyed when 10 students walked through the door. “This club should be where all feel welcome,” Alison declared. I glanced at Beth We grinned. Her smile meant the world to me. By our second meeting, we doubled our membership. I was ecstatic. “I joined because I struggle with these issues,” Jonah shared. Then, when an elementary school, high school, and George Mason University’s “Courageous Conversations” project asked to partner with us, I was amazed. However, I was most thrilled seeing members help peers find a place to belong. I realized that speaking boldly opened a platform for conversation and most importantly, I have learned to be loud for those who feel silenced.
I share my story for the sheer point of presenting ideas, from my personal experience, that I believe would help promote the health and well-being of a community. Spreading mental health awareness is entwined in much of my life story, and hopefully, through these ideas, it can be interwoven in the lives of many others as well.