Students Need Ready Allies for Mental Health

We need to work together to make mental well-being as important as physical well-being.

A-Digit/ Getty Images
A-Digit/ Getty Images

It’s been a month since we lost Saoirse Kennedy Hill. A month since we lost her passion, her brave voice, and her introspective spirit. Among her many qualities, Saoirse was a fierce advocate for herself and for others experiencing mental illness. As so many head back to school this fall, it’s critical we spread her message. 

With wisdom and sincerity beyond her years, Saoirse was transparent about her struggles. In fact, she shared her experience with depression in her school newspaper — revealing to peers and faculty that she was recently hospitalized after a suicide attempt. Coming forward with a story like Saoirse’s isn’t easy, but she understood that vulnerability is a strength, not a weakness. She was committed to helping others who were suffering in silence, and she wasn’t afraid to start the conversation.

“I have experienced a lot of stigma surrounding mental health,” wrote Saoirse. “As students, we have the power to end that immediately.”

The importance of prioritizing mental health is becoming increasingly evident. Recent studies show that 50 percent of us will experience a mental health challenge in our lifetime, and one in five adults has a diagnosable mental illness. Earlier this year, the American Psychological Association published an analysis of survey data for more than 600,000 adolescents and adults and found that in the past 10 to 12 years, the number of people reporting symptoms indicative of major depression increased 52 percent among 12- to 17-year-olds and 63 percent among 18- to 25-year-olds.

There is much to be done to make mental health as essential as physical health: We have to make care more accessible to those who need it; hold insurers accountable for covering illnesses of the brain, such as depression and addiction, on par with illnesses of the body, such as cancer and diabetes; and ensure that mental health is valued, discussed, and truly supported in our communities, schools, and workplaces. At the same time, as individuals, we must make more of an effort to be there for one another and check in regularly.  

Listen to Saoirse’s words:

“No one seems to know how to talk about mental illness. If someone confides in you, try not to say, ‘It’s all in your mind,’ or ‘Lighten up,’ or, my personal favorite, ‘Happiness is a choice.’ No, it’s really not. When I’m in a really bad place, I do my best to surround myself with positive people and upbeat music, but too often it feels as if I’m drowning in my own thoughts, while everyone else seems to be breathing comfortably.”

Do you know what to say when someone tells you they are really stressed, having a particularly difficult day, are in pain, or are generally concerned about their mental health? Saoirse’s call to action was this: We can — and should — be equipped to respond when a friend or loved one is experiencing a mental health challenge.

It’s time for all of us to answer that call. Like Saoirse, we must fight stigma head on, fearlessly, while equipping ourselves to have potentially life-saving conversations with our friends and loved ones. Active Minds offers an easy tip for doing so, and it’s as simple as remembering three letters: V-A-R. 

The acronym encompasses three easy actions: Validate, Appreciate, and Refer. A conversation using these elements is one that openly and actively listens to a friend, and ensures that they feel heard and supported. This simple, direct strategy could make all the difference for someone who is suffering, and possibly prevent a mental health crisis down the road. 

As the school year starts, no matter who you are — student, friend, parent, teacher, advisor — ask someone you care about how they are doing… and listen. You don’t need to be an expert to help, you just need to be there.

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