‘Mental Health Awareness Team’ directs effort for policy change

Alekya Raghavan | Staff Writer

Most students at Mason High School will spend their days in increments of seven, with a different set of 30 other students every hour. What they might not know is that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at any time, up to five of their classmates may be suffering, silently, from a mental illness.

Student Assistance Coordinator Megan Cameron said the stigma surrounding mental illness is what keeps children quiet. In effort to change this reality, the district has coined a new term; brain health.

“Mental health has a big stigma to it, and realistically there is more to it than just the mental portion of it,” Cameron said. “‘Mental’ is often associated with getting locked up in mental hospitals and never coming out again until you are fixed. We really want to change that stigma to it really is a brain issue. Something is going on in your brain where it is impacting your daily functioning at school and at home.”

The district partners with outside agencies and professionals to find better methods of care and therapy for students needing mental health help. MindPeace, a Cincinnati organization striving for the access to quality mental health resources works with Mason City Schools and Solutions to ensure the needs of students are being met. MindPeace works as a facilitator of discussion and resources for the district.

“Solutions is our biggest partner in terms of therapy aspects and some preventative measures,” Cameron said. “MindPeace is there to bridge the relationship between outside agencies and schools. It is just another way for us to kind of get around the table and talk about what different schools and agencies are doing.”

Illustration by Staff Writer Alekya Raghavan.

 

Junior Megan Cui, who has been very outspoken about the importance of mental health, said spreading awareness and understanding of what mental illness is will help create solutions.

“I think a big problem is that not everyone understands exactly what mental health is and what a solution to mental health entails,” Cui said. “Just hearing some of the stories that fellow students have gone through or seeing what happens on the news, it’s really clear that we can’t just let this thing go. It was after our most recent tragedy that a lot of Mason kids really, really started speaking up. I want to not only stop it for people who are there already, but create a chain reaction where everybody is willing to speak about it and is willing to find solutions for it.”

Senior Josh Mullins, who created a Change.org petition following November’s tragedy, is also the founder of the Mental Health Awareness Team (MHAT). Mullins brought to the table individuals who had, in the past, been outspoken about mental health on social media. According to Mullins, the group has two main objectives.

“I saw that there was a need for people to have a voice in the school when it comes to issues surrounding mental health and what suicide prevention looked like,” Mullins said. “Throughout the course, we learned that there’s holistic mental health education that’s needed in this school. Two of (our initiatives) are: mental health education surrounding holistic views and the creation of a student board that ideas are run through to make sure they authentically connect with students.”

Cui said the members of MHAT aim to use their passion to work with administration and make change at the high school level.

“We’re a bunch of people from a lot of different corners of the school,” Cui said. “These aren’t the people you typically see hanging out together but we come together for this. Along with the support of 1N5 representatives as well as, I believe we’re getting into contact with a couple nearby hospitals, we’re going to introduce our ideas to administration. I know that they’ve done hope squads, which is a great a start, but it can’t be the end. School, where we spend the majority of our days, is the first place to start (making a difference).”

Another one of MHAT’s goals is to integrate the programs from 1N5 into MHS. 1N5, named for the statistic that 1 in 5 individuals live with a diagnosable mental illness, is an organization built to educate and empower the public about mental illness. The founder, Nancy Miller, uses evidence based programs and data to create a workable plan for schools. Miller said her program targets schools and students because it is important to identify and care for individuals with mental illnesses early on.

“By the age of 14, 50 percent of mental health issues will have surfaced. By the age of 24, 75 percent will have surfaced. So the earlier you can get somebody into care, the better off they are,” Miller said. “The normal time frame it ten years. It takes ten years to get serviced and that’s just unacceptable. Imagine if you had a heart condition and it took ten years to get service. You’d be in very bad shape. That’s the same thing that happens with mental health. People are pretty far down the road when they start to get help and the outcomes are not nearly as good.”

Unsatisfied with Mason’s reaction to its student’s mental health issues, senior Trenton Borders wrote an Op-ed for The Cincinnati Enquirer, which was published on their website in January. Titled, ‘A teenager’s perspective on how to tackle the problem of suicide’, the piece associated Mason’s nine successive suicides with the school’s “failure to pursue meaningful change”. Borders, who rallied for change in the best way he knew how, is happy to see movement in the right direction.

“I’d been talking to students who were trying change things about the school’s response to mental health,” said Borders. “I knew some of them were concerned that not enough was being done and that they weren’t getting enough of a response. I knew that one of the best ways to mobilize change was to draw public attention to it, and so I wrote the op-ed. Communication is something else that I wanted to see. I wanted to convey that more should be done. And I feel like more has been done.”

Miller said she is optimistic about change because of the attitudes of Mason students.

“What we know is that the students are not afraid of this conversation, like the adults are,” Miller said. “They are tired of what’s been happening and the status quo at Mason and how things have been done in the past. I feel very confident that that is what’s going to change it, going forward.”

Despite their faults, social media and the internet have been important tools in spreading awareness about mental illness for the students at MHS. Junior Hannah McCullough first became involved with MHAT because of their use of social media to speak out about mental health.

“After the tragedy we faced in November, I tweeted something about how our school needs to be addressing this and how this shouldn’t be happening,” McCollough said. “Following what happened, I had seen very little response to it, particularly on social media. It had been more than 24 hours since people found out about it. I was frustrated, so I tweeted what I was feeling. I, first of all, honored who she was, and second, said that there should be some kind of change in how the school was addressing mental health. That was kind of my first initiative towards creating a conversation because I felt it was lacking.”

For some of these students, passion stems from more than just a deep care for their peers. It’s personal.

“My family has struggled with some mental health illnesses like bipolar, depression, anxiety,” Mullins said. “I’ve had to learn how to take care of people in my family and I’ve seen my friends struggle with taking care of people with [mental health illnesses]. I want to see that change.”

Cui’s personal experience has shown her just how hard it is to deal with mental illness by yourself. She said that the realization that sometimes you need help is what motivates her to reach out and advocate for change.

“You’ll get a lot of really demeaning comments sometimes about how you just need to be happier, stuff like that. It’s really, really damaging,” Cui said. “These are the people you grew up with, these are the people that have shown love to you your entire life. So you start to wonder, ‘maybe it is all my fault’. That was one of the biggest things I struggled with. How can other people just live through this life and be so chill about it when I’m trying to get through it and it’s so hard? Realizing that maybe you just need an extra boost of help, which is completely valid, that’s kind of what changed my life and what I hope will change other people’s lives.”

araghavan.chronicle@gmail.com