By Susan Gale
When you say mental health, many people think of mental illness, and the stigma of that can make it harder to talk about.
The Chariho Youth Task Force would like to change that conversation. They’ve started a “Stand up to Stigma” campaign to talk about how everyone has mental health, just as everyone has physical health. They want more people, especially teens, talking about how they can protect their own mental health through developing positive coping strategies before there is an issue.
As part of their work, the group has developed a video that uses an allusion to an umbrella in the rain to refer to protecting mental health. (Visit www.RIParentMag.com for a link to their video.)
“It’s necessary to talk about it,” said Ali Feicetti, a Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI) freshman. “You have to try to find your umbrella – your coping mechanism. We’re working in pre-prevention.”
“We want [young people] to know they are not all alone, to reach them before problems start,” said Dan Fitzgerald, the group’s coordinator.
Fighting issues their own way
The Task Force, made up of youth ages 10-22 and in existence for nearly eight years, is an independent group of young people working together on community issues. They have addressed tobacco use, substance abuse, and drunk driving. They regularly work with local schools and adult-run local and statewide substance abuse task forces.
Many in the group got their start as part of a Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) group at Chariho Regional High School, but found they wanted more freedom to pick what issues to address and how to address them.
They’ve been very creative. For instance, they decoupaged an entire dining room set with all the alcohol ads they found just in magazines in their own homes. During Artessy, Chariho’s K-12 art show, they put up a “green screen” and took photos of people with umbrellas, which matched the image found in their video about mental health.
The group feels that teaching positive coping skills early on with children is better than only teaching teens what they should not do, such as underage drinking.
“Nobody is scared of things,” said Rebecca Fitzgerald, a CCRI student. “You have to give people reasons not to go to those things in the first place. If they don’t have other coping skills, they turn to these things.”
“You’re only educated in all the negative things you can do. We should be educated in the positive things you can do,” added Hanna Bill, a Chariho high school freshman.
Speaking at a national conference
The Task Force’s work got them invited to present on mental health at a conference for the national SADD group. The event takes place in Tampa, Florida, in June and they are currently raising money to send members there. (Visit www.gofundme.com/chariho-youth-task-force to donate.)
They are also part of a local event happening on May 11, in which they are combining with a non-profit, Creating Outreach About Addiction Support Together (COAAST). During the day, the Task Force will present at Westerly High School about mental health. At 7 pm, COAAST will run its play, “Four Legs to Stand On,” at the Westerly Middle School.
The play is a “therapeutic theater” production designed to help audiences deal with the effects of drug abuse and overdose. Parents may choose to attend the play with teens to open up the discussion about prescription drug abuse. (See page 8 for more information. The play is designed for ages 13+.)
Members of the Task Force feel the opioid crisis is very real in their area and expressed frustration that some adults aren’t listening, including some elected leaders.
“You try to talk about it. They don’t listen. They don’t want to believe it. It’s getting bigger and bigger and we’re not talking about it,” said Aimee Louzon, a student at Chariho High School.
Susan Gale is Founder and Publisher of Rhode Island Parent Magazine.