I’ve never been embarrassed or felt shame about catching a cold or getting the flu. I remember having countless sports injuries that required a trainer and sometimes even a doctor’s attention – x-rays, stitches and staples. I even had my own collection of ankle wraps next to my sock drawer in my dresser. I never felt shame walking around my high school or college campus openly using my crutches to walk to my intended destinations. And, often, I found that being physically ill or injured led to many helping hands and thoughtful gestures. “Can I carry your books?” “Do you need a ride?” All of that seemed … normal.
So, why was it that in high school, I used to hide my private journal of “painful poems” from all of my most trusted friends and family? Why did I keep it a secret that I sometimes cried myself to sleep, looking in my Bible for answers to my teenage angst?
My future? Insecurity. Identity? Insecurity. Jealousy? Insecurity. Rage! Insecurity. Confusion? Insecurity. Sadness? Insecurity. Why take on all of that alone? Why did I feel as if I would appear “weak” if I openly shared how I truly felt? Why did I make sure I always put on my “mask” whenever I left my bedroom to hide and disguise my true feelings? Sometimes that mask manifested itself as a jokester never taking anything seriously and constantly cracking jokes. Sometimes that mask was (fake) overconfidence and bravado, and I would take part in risky and regrettable behaviors. That was not really me.
I have since received help from others – from my best friend and spouse, from church, from a private counselor and from relentless personal reflection and growth. It has been a process and I still am learning how to manage (and how to not manage) my mental health. I realize that managing my mental health means that I am living it all day every day. I have learned that mental wellness is with me in everything I do and relationship I have with self and others.
And now I find myself as an active part of a movement – a movement to erase the negative stigma associated with mental health and mental wellness. With me, it started five years ago when Freedom High School, where I currently work as the director of school counseling, started to tackle this topic. Our school staff, from the top down, has emphasized mental wellness with our students, staff and parents. We do not shy away from the topic and we have normalized the conversation of mental health and wellness. Our school is passionate and proud of our wellness initiatives and I know we are making a difference in our community.
Which brings me to this year, my 19th year in the school counseling profession. Mic drop, people. We have a game changer.
This spring, Freedom High School was one of eight schools in the country selected to be trained as instructors for teen Mental Health First Aid (tMHFA) by the National Council for Mental Wellbeing, in partnership with Born This Way Foundation. I have never felt so much professional pride and promise in my career. We trained almost 550 10th graders in tMHFA this spring. From the last day of training at the end of April to the last day of school in early June, nine students who were having a mental health crisis were referred to a trusted adult by 10th graders who had been trained in tMHFA. School counselors conducted nine suicide screenings within that amount of time and nine students were linked with additional resources to help them moving forward.
By educating them about mental wellness and empowering our students with an action plan, we are doing two things. First, we recognize that our students talk with each other first about their mental health problems and crises before they talk with an adult. They are already talking about it, so why ignore that fact and instead equip them with the tools they need to respond (much like we do with CPR certification). Second, we are educating students about mental health and wellness to alleviate myths, stereotypes and overall stigma. The more we talk about it, the more it becomes normalized.
But, the best part of tMHFA is that it started with eight sites in across the country and this fall there will be 20 additional sites offering tMHFA training for their students. Where will we be five years from now? Ten years from now? How this could positively impact a tidal wave of young adults entering adulthood? I can only imagine what this can do in our country!
By educating our teens in tMHFA, we are changing a generational stigma – one that I grew up in. We are adapting cultural norms – ones that are evident in different levels in every culture.
Mental health is a continuum that we live with every day. Sometimes we need a Band-Aid or an ankle brace. Sometimes we need crutches or stitches to get us to a place where we can function with more ease. And sometimes we need doctor-ordered medication and/or intensive treatment. But regardless, we ALL need to address mental health in our lives and educate our next generation of young adults. And let’s offer to “carry books” and “give rides,” rather than gossip about and judge those who are hurt – as if you have never been hurt before. #BeTheDifference