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Speak Truth: Destigmatizing Mental Health 

By Jenna Fournel

When Sophia, an 11th grade student at Anacostia High School, watched the television show Chicago Fire with her grandma she was surprised to observe the heavy toll trauma took on the mental health of first responders. “You never really think about those things on a daily basis,” she explained. “People are so self-centered and they only worry about what happens to them. They never really think about the world around them and what other people might be going through.” That observation inspired her to lead our October 1 speak truth session on “The Impact of Trauma on Mental Health.”

Trauma and First Responders

In preparation for the seminar, students read an article about First Responders and Mental Health that explored both a high incidence of mental health issues in these professions and a high stigmatization around talking about and addressing these issues. Charley, a 9th grader at Phelps High School found this unsurprising because first responders “are put under a lot of pressure and a lot of responsibility and that can be overwhelming for a person.”

Micah, an 11th grader at School Without Walls pointed to the historical context for stigma around mental health. In the early 1900’s “a lot of people were forced to take factory jobs but they couldn’t quit because they wouldn’t be able to feed their families and if they had a mental health issue they were fired on the spot because there was an increased demand for steel and high demand for jobs. I feel like that paved the way for mental health ignorance.” 

Lola, an 11th grader from DC International concurred, “in most of the world mental health has been incredibly stigmatized, i.e. people were put into asylums if they had anxiety or any sort of mental disorder. [In our country] historically first responders were expected to be really tough, and reliable, and physically strong. I think one of the main factors that goes into stigmatization is probably just that the first responder community doesn’t recognize that mental health and mental illness are not different than any other health care needs.”

Mental Health in the USA

Talking about the mental health of front line workers in the era of Covid-19 also inspired conversation about the mental health of our country as a whole right now. “Why do you think so many Americans suffer from mental illness?” Sophia asked the group.

Duane a 12th grader at Thurgood Marshall Academy said, “I really feel like one of the main roots is the fact that we exist in a capitalist society because capitalism kind of reinforces, at least for the lower classes, that you have to live working a 9-5 . . . Capitalism kind of reinforces that if you’re poor then you’re just poor, you’re not going to get any help. So you have to continuously work these long hours for slave work basically, slave pay-just so you can secure the safety of your family and yourself.” Others agreed that within this structure there is little room to both pay for and address mental health issues.

Caring for Our Own Wellbeing

When asked what they do to address their own mental health, students offered each other a variety of approaches. Camiya, an 11th grader at Phelps ACE High School suggested “taking a break from the stuff that is stressing you out. Sometimes I take a break from social media and talk about my problems to let everything out.” Nicki, an 11th grader from National Cathedral School, pointed to the importance of looking at the impact those around you can have on your wellbeing, “I’m a pretty social person but not all friendships are healthy, as you all know, so sometimes you have to take space from certain people.”

Lola talked about the importance of speaking with a professional or trusted adult if you have concerns and she also addressed the stigma around medication for mental health issues. “I think that taking medication if you need it and if you talk to a pediatrician or a doctor is perfectly okay. Taking medication for mental illness, whatever that may be, is kind of extremely stigmatized especially among teenagers and the media also.”

Sophia agreed. “We’re so controlled by what everybody else has to say about us and what social media thinks and everything, but if you need it then you should be able to take it without being judged. Why are we judging people if they really need help?”

Finding Purpose Amid Trauma

The discussion turned to specific things students are doing to get themselves through the isolation and trauma of this moment. Duane said, “I took it upon myself to really study the history that doesn’t get taught in high school. There is a lot of history about my people, my ancestry, and who I am as a person today [that isn’t taught]. This is the main motivation I have that is driving me to be a social activist or somebody who enacts social change. I know these things now and I know I have a powerful voice even with people around me, I affect them. I know I have the passion for it and the drive for it and it’s something that I’m willing to put my life on the line for, honestly. It’s all about the betterment of my people. Lately I’ve been trying to invest as much as possible in my friends’ businesses, Black owned businesses, everything that has to do with us moving forward. I feel like this goal of mine to enact change is larger than just myself. It’s more than just how I am as a person. It’s about my connection to everything else around me.”

Along similar lines, Micah said he’s “done a lot of research into history that isn’t taught in our textbooks. I’ve also had the opportunity to work on myself: do a lot more reading, a lot more working out, a lot more time at the basketball court and gym. But most importantly one common theme that I think that everyone has is enlightenment toward the racial injustice that is happening in America. My mom was saying that this is the first time that she’s seen people of all races really come together to fight against a lot of the problems that we have in the country today.”

Lola agreed. “Taking it upon ourselves to learn is one of the most important things this pandemic has provided teenagers with,” she added.

As the thoughtful discussion wound to a close Sade, an 11th grader at Stokes, commented that “It was nice to hear from so many different perspectives.” Once again, the diversity of thought and candid discussion proved to be a beautiful feature of the Speak Truth experience. We hope you’ll join us in a few weeks for our next session. Learn more and register here

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