TACKLING A STIGMA: Students take an active role in advocating for mental health awareness

New Palestine High School teacher Jeremy Large guides Braeden Baker, Emma Mann and Naomi Worth as they assist with the planning for the Rise Above It event. The three students are helping plan the event as part of Large’s service learning class. (Tom Russo | Daily Reporter)

NEW PALESTINE — Braedon Baker will never forget the loss. It happened during his sophomore year when one of his classmates — who, unbeknownst to Braedon or anyone else at New Palestine High School — was struggling with mental health issues.

“Our counselors, they didn’t even know,” Braedon said. “It seemed like he was living a normal life, but he hid his issues from everyone.”

The student ended up taking his own life, leaving students like Braedon wondering if there was something he and others could have done to help.

Braedon, along with NPHS seniors Emma Mann and Naomi Worth, are trying to tackle the stigma of mental health issues and let students and adults all over the county know they’re not alone when it comes to speaking out and dealing with their mental health.

The three students, who are taking a service learning class taught by NPHS teacher Jeremy Large, were tasked with coming up with a creative project that will benefit the community. Through a suggestion from the school’s guidance department, they elected to work with Healthy365 and help organize the upcoming Rise Above It mental health awareness community event. The gathering is being held at New Palestine Intermediate School from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 28.

“We know there are a lot of pressures in daily life that can affect students, and we want them to know it’s OK to show emotions and that their feelings are there,” Braedon said. “You don’t always have to be strong.”

September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among people ages 10-24 and has been increasing every year since 2007, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The rate of suicide in that age group increased nearly 60% from 2007 to 2018. A 2020 survey conducted by the CDC during the COVID-19 pandemic found that 40% of people were struggling with a mental health issue, with young people and racial/ethnic minorities most at risk.

Large noted all three seniors came into his service learning class this fall with a passion for doing a service project that involved mental health issues.

“It worked out perfectly that our district is hosting the Rise Above It event this year,” Large said.

As their teacher, he loves the class because it provides students with an opportunity to get out of the classroom and into the community.

The students must meet five primary standards for the class project: leadership; communication; critical thinking; social responsibility and strategic planning.

“It’s been fun watching them work together to utilize and develop these skills in a real-world setting,” Large said.

The seniors are working with Caitlin Fangman of the NPHS guidance department to promote and recruit volunteers for the event. They’re also working with Healthy365 to organize and set things up.

“I think it’s wonderful to see teenagers concerned about others, especially with regards to others’ mental health,” Fangman said.

The students noted they were looking for a project that would encompass their passions and concerns. They were thrilled when Fangman suggested they take on the event as their project.

“We just know mental health issues are prevalent in our community, and we know there have been so many tragedies due to mental health issues,” Emma said.

The students say they want to break down the negative image surrounding mental health problems and let people know they are not alone.

“There is for some reason shame associated with mental health issues and that causes people to not want to open up or talk about it, and we want to change that,” Emma said. “We want a more open conversation between students, staff and the people in our community.”

The growth of social media and the pandemic have compounded the impacts on mental health, the students said.

“I definitely feel like with social media, and with COVID the past couple of years, it’s making people feel more excluded, not good enough and inadequate” Naomi said. “We know there are rising rates of depression and anxiety.”

She likes the fact the event will have workshops as well as vendors on hand to counsel those who need help.

Rise Above It aims to start a conversation about mental health, supporting others, and teaching people how to access resources. Discussions on multiple topics chosen by the high school students will be available. Those will include anxiety; depression and suicide; social media; grief and loss; vaping and smoking; substance misuse; self-regulation; and mind-body medicine.

“We think helping out with an event like this will open some eyes and let everyone see what is really going on in our community and how they are not alone with their mental health issues,” Braedon said. “It doesn’t matter if you come from a low-income or high-income family; everyone can have mental health issues — issues that will determine what happens during their daily life.”

Braedon and Emma are co-presidents of the school’s student council this year and said they want to keep the discussion going after the event. They plan to send emails monthly to fellow students — even those from elsewhere around the county who are invited to attend — asking them how they’re doing and whether they need some help.

Large noted he is proud of the students for tackling such an important issue with hopes they will can knock down some walls and make a difference through compassion and inclusion during and after the event.

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What: Rise Above It, a workshop that focuses on mental health sponsored by Hancock Health’s Healthy365 initiative

When: 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 28

Where: New Palestine Intermediate School, 5613 W County Road 200S, New Palestine

Who: Adults and youths from throughout the county invited.

Mental health assistance

Help is available 24/7 for those who are confronting a mental health crisis:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-TALK (8255)

Indiana Crisis Text Line: Text IN to 741741

Veterans Crisis Line: 800-273-8255 and press 1