To attack negative stereotypes surrounding mental illness, a group of parents in the Forest Hills Public Schools district has put to work the theory that there’s comfort in numbers. Experts say it’s not only working, but actually saving lives.
A handful of moms dubbed the “Triple A” committee began meeting three years ago to share experiences and talk about what their school community could do to improve advocacy and increase awareness and acceptance of mental health issues.
They concede that the district had seen four suicides in six years was a “wake-up call,” one mom said, but stress that the catalyst for the group was a desire to broaden the conversation surrounding metal health. Each of the six moms serving as the core group behind Triple A knew someone affected by a mental illness, which drove home the point that people shouldn’t suffer more when brains get sick, just like arms get broken.
“Certainly when you see (student suicide) in your district… the first topic we chose to bring to families was depression and suicide prevention,” said Tamera Laage, one of the parents behind the effort. “Triple A was not formed out of any one incident or anything we saw as a trend, but more just from informal conversations between neighbors and friends about how people struggle and what we could do to have a broader conversation.”
A Community Working Together
The group worked with mental health professionals already employed by the district to develop programs other parents might find helpful, and have since brought local and nationally-recognized speakers to address issues from depression and suicide prevention to bullying, anxiety, substance abuse and the impacts of social media. This year, a $10,000 grant from the Forest Hills Public Schools Foundation has helped the group better promote its community forums, which have drawn hundreds and helped bring in speaker Jeff Yalden, a teen life coach on MTV’s reality show, “Made.”
The district also hosted David Jangda, a psychologist with Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services who serves as the district’s liaison for behavioral health. Jangda said the group’s message that there is help is spreading to students and parents.
Jangda said parents have approached him asking for help after community forums. Having so many attend sends a powerful message that the Forest Hills community is standing together in encouraging those in need to seek help, and reduces stigma when they do, he said.
“Personally, I have seen this working because a lot of parents have been referred to me after being motivated by a Triple A event,” Jangda said. “They literally have saved lives because they’ve been able to reach people who didn’t know where to go or what to do.
“Spreading the awareness has been infectious. It’s reduced that stigma because we’re seeing these other moms coming up and saying ‘My kid did this,’ so others understand this is OK.”
Getting Help When Needed
Parents and school staff say Jangda’s expertise has been invaluable. They say he has been able to sort through the maze of health questions, including how to determine a best course of action for a particular student, and getting people immediate help if needed.
“There are times after presentations we’ve had people come up to us and say ‘I think you literally saved my kid’s life tonight,” because a mental health professional has told them, ‘This kid is going to get help tomorrow. There’s a plan in place right now,'” said Judy Bouley, a counselor at Central Woodlands.
“We need to accept kids where they are, take the labels and judgment off and work from that point,” Bouley added. “The last piece is that we’re going to advocate for these kids and all of our community to get information to be aware of what’s going on and be a part of the solution.
“We are so quick to rally around a classmate who got stitches or is on crutches. We’d like to get people accepting of kids who have other kinds of challenges, too.”