By Amaya Branche, Community Foundation intern
Last summer, some of my peers in Partnership for the Future and I experienced our first therapy session together. A mental health counselor came to speak to us with a plan to teach us about the top mental illnesses faced by adolescents. Our plan was to listen until she was finished, while trying our best not to fall asleep. But what ended up happening instead was something none of us expected.
About 15 minutes into the session, she gave us the floor and asked us to talk about how we were feeling. For some of us, it was the first time a space had ever been created for us where it felt safe to do so. Soon enough, the whole room was in tears as we listened to each other’s personal struggles and finally talked about our own. There were people who admitted they had been struggling with depression and anxiety, coping with the aftereffects of childhood trauma, and thinking about committing suicide.
There were over 50 of us, and we all agreed that it wasn’t okay that we had never really been taught how to cope with our emotions, especially since we know how common mental disorders are and how serious they can get. Teaching people my age, and even younger, that their feelings are valid and okay to express needs to become more commonplace.
According to data from the U.S Department of Health and Human Services, depression among 16- and 17-year-olds rose by 69 percent from 2009 to 2017, and feelings of anxiety and hopelessness among 18- to 25-year-olds rose by 71 percent. In a 2016 study from Mental Health America, Virginia was ranked 47th for providing youth in need with mental health services (Richmond Times Dispatch). A report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation notes that 39 percent of children in Richmond lived in poverty in 2014, and it is well known that poverty and mental illness often go hand in hand. This is why I believe so strongly that Richmond would be a perfect place to promote mental health advocacy in schools throughout the state, and eventually, throughout the country.
What We Can Do
Students who don’t have food at home rely on schools to provide them with free breakfast and lunch, and they teach us almost everything when it comes to physical health. So why aren’t students with mental and emotional disorders able to rely on school for help with their issues, especially when school is one of the biggest stressors for teenagers? Crafting a curriculum for mental health education and making free mental health services a requirement in our schools would teach people from a young age about stress, anxiety and emotional turmoil, and how to navigate through it all. And a key component in making that possible is, of course, funding.
After interning at the Community Foundation through Partnership for the Future for two years now, and as someone struggling with mental health, I decided to use the opportunity to write this blog to raise awareness for an issue that means a lot to me and those around me. I’ve always had a strong desire to leave a mark on the education system because I see so many potential areas of improvement. So now, I ask you to consider investing your time and money in the emotional well-being of youth. We have all seen how much philanthropy has improved our region over the years, but we could be doing so much more. Educating yourself on mental health issues, donating to schools, and advocating for mental health education at the school board level can bring about significant change in our community. I sincerely hope that you will support me in making it happen.