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“I wanted to punch them,” laughs Kristen, a 17-year-old high school student and a member of the Mental Health Youth Action Board (YAB) at Children’s Hospital Colorado.
Tonight’s meeting revolves around their annual interactive art exhibit. This year’s exhibit is titled “Mental Health is All Our Stories” and they’re preparing to unveil it at upcoming community outreach events. No, she’s not talking about a mean girl clique or bullies or anyone else school administrators worry will terrorize their halls. She’s talking about the school administrators themselves.
They’ve had a harder time convincing their own high schools how important this project is.
“I went in to talk to my counselors and they were a little bit hesitant about it. There was definitely some fear; they didn’t want kids pretending to be suicidal or anything like that,” Kristen explains. “In my school, in my freshman, sophomore and junior years, we’ve had, well— at least one person’s committed suicide.”
It’s this fear of opening up about anxiety, depression and the stresses of being a teenager that frustrates Kristen and her fellow YAB members. Avoiding student suicide by refusing to talk about the feelings that can precede it seems counterintuitive and frankly, ridiculous.
“If you have a broken leg or some other medical health problem, you get treated and there’s no shame. But admitting you’re depressed is like admitting a weakness or something,” explains Savannah, another YAB member. “We want mental health to be sought out and as supported as general health.”
Made up of a dozen youth ages 15 to 17 from the Denver Metro Area, the Pediatric Mental Health Institute at Children’s Colorado started the YAB in 2013. The teens in this group focus on improving mental health services and de-stigmatizing mental health issues among their peers.
The YAB hopes that “Mental Health is All Our Stories” will start conversations and encourage teens to take mental health personally. The group was inspired by the popular creative writing assignment: create a story in only six words.
An Oscar winning performance: “I’m fine.”
Sharing silence can speak very loudly.
There is no normal. Let go.
Whether through their own experiences or those they’re close to, each YAB member has had some point of contact with mental health issues. Sparked by these diverse points of view, YAB wrote 31 stories — one for each day in May, which is Mental Health Awareness Month.
The interactive exhibit they designed displays their stories as book covers and encourages others to contribute their own six-word stories or memoirs. They’ll also launch a Twitter campaign during May (#MonuMENTALhealth) to inspire others to share their struggles and their triumphs.
“Six words are powerful. Anyone can relate to them,” Kristen explains.
“It makes people think because it’s so short. It’s this impersonal thing that is made personal,” nods Savannah.
The next few months will be busy for many of the YAB members as they prepare for Advanced Placement testing, prom, graduation, and in the fall, college. But, normalizing mental health issues is just as meaningful for these engaged and passionate teens.
“I come to every meeting because it’s full of super rad people,” smiles Kristen, “who aren’t freaked out to talk about it.”
If you or someone you know is in crisis and need immediate support, please call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or the Colorado Crisis & Support Line at 1-844-493-TALK (8255). You’ll be connected to a skilled, trained counselor at a crisis center in your area, anytime 24/7.