Assembly Addresses Mental Health Awareness on Campus

BY ANNA REED staff writer

The assembly “Healthy Minds: Learning to Build Resilience” took place in Berkeley High School’s (BHS) Little Theater on Tuesday, February 21.

Organized by BHS senior and Associated Student Body (ASB) Health Commissioner Athena Chin, the assembly featured three speakers and a panel covering issues of mental health especially prevalent among teenagers.

“Mental health is such a taboo topic to talk about because it is so stigmatized, even though so many people around us experience some type of mental illness,” said Chin in her opening remarks. “Some of the consequences of this [stigma] are that people feel isolated or worthless or feel ashamed to reach out for help because having a mental illness is portrayed as having some type of weakness,” she continued.

Chin said she aimed to raise awareness, promote discussion, and provide information surrounding issues of mental health among the student body.

According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, one in five teenagers struggle or will struggle with a serious mental illness.

Chin explained the fact that mental illness is not an abstract, rare issue but a very real and prevalent thing that many people deal with on a daily basis.

The three speakers were junior Ruby Spies, Martin Luther King Jr Middle School mental health counselor Abbie Gregor, and Los Altos High School junior Nadia Ghaffari.

Each speaker explored different aspects of mental health through different presentations.

Gregor covered several different types of mental illnesses, including anxiety and depression, two of the most common among adolescents.

“Anxiety and depression are oftentimes very good friends. Somebody may be depressed and also have anxiety,” she said.

Gregor also spoke about how to be mentally healthy, including positive coping mechanisms, such as exercise or art.

Ghaffari elaborated on this topic during her presentation, explaining that solidarity and camaraderie are incredibly important for teens going through mental illness.

Ghaffari founded the website teenztalk.org, which has videos made by teens across the world telling their stories and sharing ways that they have grown through their experiences.

Ghaffari said that this supportive online community can help teens strengthen their mental health support systems for the future.

“If teens are able to build coping strategies for themselves early on and learn how to seek help comfortably, this will help them immensely throughout the rest of their lives, since mental health and wellness are not any less important during adulthood,” said Ghaffari.

Unlike the more informational presentations of Ghaffari and Gregor, Spies shared her personal story.

Spies, spoke about her experience dealing with severe depression and anxiety.

She connected her experience to her queer activism, noting the high rates of mental illness among queer youth and connecting mental illness to her identity as a whole.

“There are a lot of things that make up who I am and [mental illness] is one of them. It doesn’t define me, but it is something that I live with everyday,” Spies said.

Gregor spoke about the inequity that is present when it comes to treating people with mental illness and the stigma surrounding mental illness.

“When we look across race and ethnicity, we see that [every population] experiences mental illness on some level,” she said, “but what we notice is that different populations seek help at different rates.”

Black and Latino populations access mental health services only about half as much as white people, while Asians only access them about a third as much.

Aspects of mental health services, such as culturally competent and culturally sensitive resources are essential to combating this discrepancy, Gregor explained.

Furthermore, Gregor said, “when we’re looking at areas or depression and suicide attempts, LGBT youth are experiencing them at much higher rates.” She explained that this is due to disproportionate stressors and anxiety inducing experiences that LGBT+ youth tend to deal with.

Increased accessibility is only a part of destigmatizing mental health and opening conversations up surrounding mental illness and mental wellness.

Spies explained her plans to start a peer education organization surrounding mental health, much like Sexual Health Information for Teens (SHIFT), which already exists at BHS.

All the speakers  also highlighted how important it is to have a safe environment and to seek out help when you or a friend is going through mental illness.

“I truly believe that educating students about their own minds can be empowering and that it is the first step to reducing the stigma surrounding mental health,” stated Chin.

Every speaker emphasized that creating a general culture that supports victims of mental health is of the utmost importance. “If we want any change to take place, it has to start at the grassroots level,” said Chin.

Aside from destigmatizing the general culture, Chin explained that teaching people about their health on a personal level is very important.