According to legend, the phoenix is a bird that represents new life. In Greek mythology, the bird is resurrected after rising up from ashes and is an ancient symbol of being able to emerge strong, even in the face of life’s greatest trials and tribulations.
This depiction of strength and resilience is what came to mind when a group of State College Area High School students were deciding on a logo to best represent the work they are doing in promoting mental and emotional health and well-being. Their work has resulted in the creation of My Mental Health Matters (MMHM), a school organization that is raising awareness about the importance of people paying just as much attention to their thoughts, feelings, and ideas as they do to their physical health.
Tiffany Chen, a senior and one of the founders of the club, says that the phoenix represents the belief that it’s just as important to be mentally strong as it is to be physically strong. Raising awareness about mental health is at the heart of MMHM and has come to light over the past year as students share their message with their peers, classmates, teachers, and other community members and professionals. The message is timely as May is Mental Health Month.
The message is increasingly reaching more young people who are recognizing the importance of mental health. For its class gift, Penn State’s Class of 2016 is establishing an endowment to support Penn State’s Center for Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). CAPS staff members work with thousands of Penn State students each year in group therapy, individual counseling, crisis intervention, and psychiatric services. They also provide prevention, outreach, and consultation services for the university community.
Penn State executive vice president and provost Nicholas Jones said in a press release, “CAPS provides vital services every day by helping students manage a range of personal and mental-health challenges. College is an exciting time, and young adulthood can be stressful. The need for additional funding is growing as more students recognize the essential support that CAPS is able to provide them.”
Support for mental health has reached the high school level with organizations such as MMHM, which was formed in June 2015 before the end of the school year. Chen says that the idea for the organization was born by the results of the Pennsylvania Youth Survey (PAYS), sponsored by the PA Commission on Crime and Delinquency and administered to school students every two years to determine risk and protective factors for young people. PAYS data indicated that students were experiencing high levels of stress, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts, she says.
Based on this information, and with the support of school counselors Suzanne Jury Lyke and Patty Devecka, a group of concerned students decided it was time to do something.
“The initiative came to be because of the students,” Devecka says. “There is a stigma around mental health. As counselors who follow them for four years, we know them well. We didn’t have a preconceived idea of what this club would be — we’ve been figuring it out along the way.”
As the group has grown and evolved over the past year, two main themes have emerged, Lyke says, which are reducing stigma and promoting positive mental health.
“This matters because everyone’s mental health is important,” she says.
In fact, the simple message that “mental health matters” turned into one of the group’s biggest projects earlier this year. A simple idea turned hugely successful when the group made hundreds of brightly colored pieces of paper that simply read: “My mental health matters because _____.” These papers were made available to students, and students from all walks of high school life snatched up the papers to ll in the blanks.
Devecka and Lyke say that students seemed to appreciate having the opportunity to express their feelings on this simple piece of paper. And the messages were powerful.
“My mental health matters because I deserve to be happy.”
“My mental health matters because I am important.”
These and hundreds of other self-affirming words were written on the papers, and the colorful display adorned walls and windows at the school. The counselors say that these types of projects are what MMHM is all about. They emphasize the fact that it is not a therapy group but a way to allow students feel supported and to give them techniques to manage their lives when they feel overwhelmed.
“I think this group has contributed to the overall atmosphere of the school. It has allowed students to feel empowered and accepted,” Lyke says.
Chen and fellow club members Loren Davis, a freshman, and Kaylah Urie, a senior, along with the other seven or eight students who have been instrumental in establishing MMHM, have taken their advocacy efforts to the next level. They have participated in trainings with Dr. Leo Flanagan of the Center for Resilience and are sharing this information not only with their peers but also with professionals. They recently went into ninth-grade health classes to talk about the work of MMHM and teach students guided meditation exercises and a multitasking exercise they learned from Flanagan.
The multitasking exercise was to give students a sense of how many things they juggle over the course of a day, and the realization that feeling exhausted and overwhelmed was natural and could be managed in a healthy way.
“Stress never really goes away,” Urie says. “If students don’t find good ways to handle it now, it will eventually catch up to them.”
Davis says as a freshman she feels that her age group faces different stressors than her fellow club members who are seniors. “Trying to fit in and figure out high school is stressful. If we don’t find ways to manage stress now, our whole high school career might not be as strong as it could be,” she says.
The students, who have even presented at a conference recently for school administrators, say that community agencies such as the Jana Marie Foundation have been key in helping them build an identity for their group. The Jana Marie Foundation is a nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering young people (especially young women) to make positive choices, practice self-respect, and maintain healthy relationships by providing opportunities for personal growth and creative self-expression.
Marisa Vicere is president and founder and started the organization after her sister, Jana, “completed suicide in 2011 at the tender age of 30.” She shares the State High students’ view about stigma associated with mental health, and in an effort to “stomp out” the stigma surrounding mental-health issues, the organization has created the Stompers Project in Centre County. The aptly-named Stompers are colorful, life-sized sculptures that can be found at various locations around the county. The foundation is working with local artists, schools, and other organizations to create these sculptures out of old sneakers.
The sculptures, which take on a human form, are given names such as “Peace,” “Voice,” “Buddy,” “Recovery and Hope,” and the prototype “Sole.” New Stompers are introduced at various events during the year and have been featured at area art exhibits. On April 12, four youth-sized Stompers were introduced at the YMCA of Centre County and named after YMCA character-development values: “Respect,” “Caring,” “Honesty,” and “Responsibility.” These four stompers were created by more than 220 children across Centre County. Vicere says the children participating in the project learned the benefits of community and discussed ways to get involved and how to support one another.
On April 24, a Suicide Survivor Stomper was unveiled at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) Out of the Darkness Walk. This Stomper is sponsored by the Jana Marie Foundation, Mount Nittany Health, and Central PA Chapter of AFSP.
“Mental illness does not discriminate,” Vicere says. “It can affect people of all ages, gender, race, and socioeconomic status. According to NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), one in five Americans will be affected by a mental-health condition in their lifetime, and every American is affected or impacted through friends and family. It is important to raise awareness through education, fight stigma, and provide support.”
In recognition of Mental Health Month, there will be a Stomper on display at the State College Municipal Building during May.
“After losing my sister to suicide in 2011, I knew I wanted to find a way to educate about mental-health challenges, ignite conversations, and to let people know they are not alone,” Vicere says. She believes there are many myths and stigmas regarding mental health and that people who are struggling could be embarrassed to talk about it or get help.
“The reality is that many people have lots of misconceptions about what mental health is and isn’t,” she says. “People may think it is something that someone can just ‘shake off’ or they are ‘over dramatizing.’ Raising awareness about mental health can help us to begin to have conversations — conversations that will help those struggling be understood and get the help they need, and allow those that are in a position to help be able to do so.”
Amelia McGinnis, an outpatient therapist and owner of McGinnis Counseling and Consulting in Lemont, credits the Jana Marie Foundation for focusing on young people and giving them places to find their voice. She mentions that in addition to the Stompers Project, Jana Marie Foundation also provides programs for parents through Straight Talk seminars and the Candid Conversation video series.
McGinnis highlights the importance of young people having a connection with safe adults as being a good starting point if they are feeling overwhelmed by life.
She says, “One of the things I often tell parents to look for are any drastic changes in mood, friends, schoolwork, etc. Does the youth seem to be struggling in multiple areas of their life right now: friends, school, home, work, etc. Have there been any drastic changes to personality or even how they are dressing? Are they isolating more than what they normally do?
“I often hear parents share that they are not sure what is ‘normal.’ I tell them that they should trust their instincts. They know their child, and if something feels off, talk to their child. See if something is going on — be open and caring. If other steps are then needed, talking to the school or a therapist, that can be done second.”
She uses the word “stigma,” as well. According to McGinnis, there is a stigma that it is a person’s fault or that they are choosing to act in a certain way and that it is “easy” to stop how they act or feel.
“On the other extreme, I think sometimes people look at certain diagnoses and forget to see a person under it. Instead, they have a perception from media or television of what the diagnoses means, which is often not accurate,” she says.
According to Vicere, it is important to educate parents, caregivers, and concerned community members on what youth are faced with today. For that reason, Vicere has become a youth mental-health first aid instructor. In 2015, Jana Marie Foundation began offering this course to the area so adults could learn a five-step action plan to help youth who may be facing a crisis or noncrisis situation.
For parents and other important adults in young people’s lives, it is important to be aware of signs that might indicate that their children and teens are struggling.
“The adolescent years are full of change — knowing what typical adolescent behavior is and when it might be something more can be difficult,” Vicere says. “If you notice an adolescent is no longer engaged in activities that they used to love and has not replaced them with new activities, or if there are big shifts in behavior, or if you feel like there may be a reason for concern, it is important to seek help. Primary care physicians and school counselors are a great place to start.”
It’s just as important for adults to be aware of what they can do to promote positive emotional and mental health and well-being for their children. Lyke and Devecka recommend that parents ensure that young people get plenty of sleep, eat well, and are physically active and help them balance the demands of school, sports, and other activities. Also, they suggest that parents make sure their children are taking a break from their phones and other technology.
The students in MMHM agree that giving themselves a break from outside pressures and stress can sometimes be the best way to feel calmer and more peaceful. The students say it is difficult to achieve if they are not in a good place mentally. And, they have some advice for adults, too.
Chen says, “Life is not just about grades. It’s important for kids to take a breather and for parents to understand that sometimes kids need to take a break — don’t try to put all this added pressure on their kids. They just don’t necessarily have the right tool kit.”
Urie says that the message is the same for both adults and students: “We all want to help others. But if we are not taking care of ourselves, we are not able to do anything else. Everyone needs to take care of themselves first.”