In the spring of seventh grade, I impatiently waited for my bat mitzvah. Twice a week, my Grandpa Jerry would pick me up from school, blasting Neil Diamond CDs in the car, and drive me to my Hebrew lessons. We were both excited for the special day to come.
But just eighteen days before my bat mitzvah, my grandfather suddenly passed away.
Not only was I unable to prepare for this loss, I was limited in my ability to process the changes in my life that were to come. I wanted to cry for days and hit the pause button on my responsibilities, but I couldn’t delay an event that hundreds of people were coming to, especially one so significant in my life as a Jewish woman. I did not know how to properly grieve, so I bottled up the pain and refocused my attention elsewhere.
In the fall of eighth grade, all the emotions I had locked away came crashing down on me. I found myself in a difficult state of mind, wanting desperately to help both myself and others, but without an outlet to channel these emotions. Though none of us truly knew what stigma was, it still flooded the middle school hallways. No one discussed mental health- it was as though “depression” was a dirty word. I felt isolated, and struggled with the unfounded concept that there were no other students who felt the same way.
Middle school graduation arrived at last, and I prepared for high school with hope for a fresh start. Two weeks into my new school, I saw a poster for the Mayor’s Youth Leadership Council, “MYLC,” plastered on the school walls: “Interested in Youth Activism? Are mental health issues and suicide prevention important to you? Consider joining the Mayor’s Youth Leadership Council.” Those words chipped away at some of the heaviness I carried around with me. I had never seen people address mental health so openly, and now realized a group of students supported a cause that resonated with me.
I fell in love with MYLC immediately. After struggling independently, feeling as though no one was comfortable discussing mental health, I was in a room with more than sixty people talking about it, in a way I hadn’t heard anyone do so before. After participating as a general member for two years, I took on an executive role for my junior and senior years. MYLC’s mission is not only to battle the stigma surrounding mental illness, but also to educate students on the resources available to them. We plan roughly six to ten activities per month, both throughout the community and in school, some of which include fishbowl discussions, sign holding, chalking, distributing informational handouts and awareness ribbons, and creating public displays for the school hallways. Biweekly, the entire club meets to connect and work on activities. Each year, we volunteer for the Out Of Darkness Suicide Prevention Walk and fundraise for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). My junior year, I implemented our annual “Diner Night,” in which the club waits tables at a local diner and donates all tip money to AFSP. In October 2017, I discussed MYLC being a model for a youth-led health promotion initiatives at the University of Maryland School of Medicine’s Conference on Advancing School Mental Health in Washington, DC. I’ve also made informational videos on how to access mental health resources at our high school, and had the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number added to the back of school ID cards at the end of my senior year.
I’ve grown immensely since losing my grandfather, and am thankful that my experience with loss and grief was able lead me to a club that shaped who I am today. MYLC was the cornerstone of my high school experience, and helped me find my passion advocating for mental illness and other social issues. I know my grandfather would be proud of me if he were here to see the work I’ve done. Though there are periods of time in which I still struggle with my mental health, it only furthers my drive to stay involved with mental health advocacy. I now work as a crisis counselor for the Crisis Text Line, and study Psychology (Pre-Health) and Public Policy (with intended minors in Child & Adolescent Mental Health Studies and American Sign Language) at New York University with the intention of going into the mental health field after graduating.
It’s easy to feel powerless when you’re young, but I’ve learned that it’s even easier to allow yourself to be powerful. Help is always available, but it’s worthless if there aren’t people to point others in the right direction. It only takes a few people talking to start a discussion, and if you’re able to save one life, you impact many. When walking around my old high school, you’ll see thousands of students wearing ribbons to show their support for different mental illnesses and suicide prevention. And though that may seem like a small difference, it fosters an environment where students don’t have to be ashamed for their struggling.
Taking the first step in changing the conversation surrounding mental health at your school can be daunting, but I’m here to help you through it. Stay tuned for my next article where I’ll be sharing tips and suggestions on how to be a youth advocate for mental health and suicide prevention!