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Creating safe spaces

New initiative encourages awareness, discussion

Kenowa Hills — On a freezing February morning at Pathways High School, two speakers from Michigan nonprofit i understand spoke to students about the importance of mental health. 

Instead of allowing the weight of the conversation to justify his silence, senior Breyden Link volunteered to speak about his own experience.

“I became stronger than depression because I didn’t run away,” Breyden explained. “I found comfort in facing my issues and setting goals.” 

Thanks to i understand founder Vonnie Woodrick and her co-speaker, Julie Gregory, students like Breyden felt comfortable enough in the classroom space to be vulnerable.

Listening to the presentation allowed Breyden to reflect on his mental health over the last few years.

“Three years ago, I was out of shape and in a very dark place trying to climb out,” he explained. “I could’ve easily lost my life in the same vein as others have, drifting without a goal. What saved and motivated me was my dream of becoming a professional wrestler, which required me to become more than fit and active.” 

Freshman Kaylee Link and junior Sierra Vander Stel contributed their comments and questions to the presentation

The presentation also served as the kick-off event for the Paint Kenowa Green initiative, a districtwide effort with the goal to raise awareness and end stigma about mental illness.   

“We’re participating in this districtwide initiative to encourage conversations on mental illness and raise awareness of mental health issues for our staff and students,” Pathways Principal Jared Herron said. 

Woodrick started i understand, an organization that offers compassionate comfort to those affected by suicide and mental illness, after losing her husband to suicide in 2003.

“My passion is changing the way we view and talk about suicide,” Woodrick said. “Sometimes it’s hard to share stories when you’ve experienced loss, but I want you all to understand we don’t choose our pain; it chooses us.”

Gregory volunteers to support i understand and share her own story of personal and familial mental illness. She reminded the students that tomorrow can be better than today, as long as there is one. 

“When I was your age, I self-medicated with alcohol, which was not a great idea because it only made me more depressed,” Gregory shared with students. “We don’t talk about the pain associated with mental health, but when we share our experiences with each other, it becomes easier to have these conversations.”

When Woodrick paused for questions during her presentation, junior Sierra Vander Stel gathered the courage to raise her hand.

“How do you talk to your friends about your mental health problems when they’re also dealing with their mental health?” Sierra asked. 

Woodrick’s advice: “Opening up to share your feelings with a friend or family member is a win-win for both of you. Then the two of you can brainstorm actions to work toward healing, instead of sitting in your feelings alone.”  

Freshman Kaylee Link offered a positive affirmation to the two speakers, as part of the school’s goal to encourage giving and receiving them. 

“I thought you both were very powerful speakers, and what you had to say reached all of us in some way,” Kaylee said. 

Senior Breyden Link shared about his struggle with mental health, and the importance of creating goals

Mental Health Moves Forward

Between January and October 2020, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found the proportion of mental health–related emergency visits for children aged 5–11 and 12–17 years increased approximately 24% and 31%, respectively, compared to 2019. 

The two speakers also addressed how the global coronavirus pandemic has increased the prevalence of mental illness, prompting Breyden to later share his perception.

“When the pandemic first hit, businesses and public areas shutting down was hard for many people,” he recalled. “The environment slowly became more dormant and unhealthy, and a tragic amount of people turned to even heavier substance abuse in their solemn solitude, or took their lives.”

Breyden said he felt lucky to have the wrestling season end before schools shuttered in March 2020.  

“I used the time locked inside to further my goals, work out more, try to write more, find even more friends, and enjoy as much as possible whilst being confused as to what’s happening,” Breyden said. 

Plans are for the Paint Kenowa Green initiative to continue creating spaces and providing opportunities for students in all buildings to talk about their own mental health, Herron said. 

Later that day, Breyden shared his message with others about the importance of mental health. 

“If you have no goals, you can suffer from anything. Find something in life to allow you to confront the future; to accept and analyze but not grieve the past,” he said. “That’s what helps destroy mental illness.”

As part of the Paint Kenowa Green Initiative, Pathways High School decorated bulletin boards with mental health resources
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Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark is a reporter, covering Caledonia and Kenowa Hills and is a roving reporter for Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She grew up in metro Detroit and her journalism journey brought her west to Grand Rapids via Michigan State University where she covered features and campus news for The State News. She also co-authored three 100-question guides to increase understanding and awareness of various human identities, through the MSU School of Journalism. Following graduation, she worked as a beat reporter for The Ann Arbor News - covering stories on education, community, prison arts and poetry.  Following a stint as a copywriter for a Grand Rapids area PR firm, she transitioned from communications to freelance writing and reporting for SNN.  Read Alexis' full bio



  1. —end stigma about mental illness

    And that remains our focus — not those taught and teaching it, not those promulgating it, so in effect they continue teaching it and we continue battling it.

    In a way we have formed a symbiotic relationship: We can continue fighting it, so long as they continue teaching it. Team work.

    Harold A Maio, retired mental health editor


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