Students stomp out mental health stigma
“You’re about to hear a sad story,” John Halligan told a crowded auditorium of ninth- and 10th-graders at Bellport High last week. “But my intention is not to make you sad.” You could have heard a pin drop in the room as Halligan shared his story — Ryan’s story — about losing his 13-year-old son to suicide in 2003.
He spoke about bullying, the impact that words, spoken out loud or written online, can have on a person. And he drove home one unifying message. “All of you are loved beyond belief. Trust me on this one,” he said.
Halligan says there’s no greater human pain than a parent losing their child. And there are South Country parents who can attest to that. Last summer, Cecilia Buada had to do what no parent should ever have to after losing her son, Rocel John “RJ” Buada, to suicide in August. He was 15. She said grief has been her “hardest trial” as a mother, turning to faith to keep her centered.
But Buada and her husband Rod have found solace in an unexpected place: RJ’s friends, Alexis Spence, Savanna Borrero, Taylor Fontana and Alexis Walker.
Halligan’s presentation hit home for the group, who last fall made an emotional plea to the South Country board of education and administrators for mental health resources. Their idea eventually evolved into an awareness week observed to kick off May, which is recognized nationally as Mental Health Awareness Month.
“We were talking about bringing more mental health awareness before [RJ] passed,” said sophomore Taylor Fontana. “When he passed ... that kind of nudged us to take it further.”
Alexis Spence, also a sophomore, recalled attending her friend’s wake. “I was mad and sad at the same time,” she said, trying to make sense of the pain. Her mom, Kathleen, advised her to take her anger and turn it into action. They then teamed up with three classmates, who wrote letters to administration and amassed over 600 signatures in two days petitioning for action.
Assistant principal Reinaldo Latorre worked with the group to come up with activities for the awareness week, which included workshops for students during health and gym classes, mindfulness exercises, SafeTALK training for students and parents, PSA-like posters and a focus on positivity. “They brought up suicide prevention, and sure, suicide is one of the biggest, scariest issues, but there are so many other issues,” Latorre said, of things like eating disorders, depression and anxiety. “We’re honing in on preventative ways to deal with those kinds of things to try and be a bit more proactive,” he said.
School psychologist Vicki Montalvo also had a hand in planning the week’s events. “What I wanted [students] to see were strategies to handle stress as opposed to just focusing on what depression or anxiety is,” she said, adding that the mindfulness activities were refreshing to see. “I’m really grateful to the students. I think there’s a lot of focus on crisis, but not enough on developing strategies before you get there, and I feel like this was a gigantic step in that direction.”
Walking through the hallways of the high school, creative posters created by art students celebrated themes of hope and acceptance, seeking to break mental health stigmas and other issues, like LGBTQ pride. Alexis Walker, a sophomore, took inspiration from her favorite Broadway show, “Dear Evan Hansen,” whose plotline includes suicide. She borrows lyrics from the first act’s finale: “Even when the dark comes crashing through/When you need a friend to carry you/And when you’re broken on the ground/You will be found.”
The student-led initiative comes amid a nationwide conversation about mental health, an issue largely kept out of public dialogue. And it’s permeating pop culture. Last year, rapper Logic released “1-800-273-8255,” a single that embraces a simple message: suicide is never the answer. Wanting people to know that help is always available, the song’s title is the phone number to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. 2017 also saw the debut of “13 Reasons Why” on Netflix, a show based on a 2007 novel by Jay Asher. The graphic show centers around Hannah Baker’s suicide; she details reasons why in cassette tapes sent to classmates after her death.
Montalvo said she isn’t a fan of the show, and fears it could do more harm than good. With the next season set to premiere on Netflix later this month, she advises parents to be aware that their teens may be tuned in. “I would encourage parents to watch it with their children and explain to them that this is a Hollywood version of what happens,” Montalvo said.
A number of workshops held focused on crisis response and how to talk about issues with a friend or classmate who may be suffering.
Spence says she found the SafeTALK training workshop to be invaluable. “I knew about [the national] suicide hotline, but not about the local resources. Having these numbers could have saved someone’s life,” she said, looking around at her classmates. “It could have saved RJ’s life.”
Walker agreed. “I put some of the numbers in my phone just in case,” she said, to be prepared.
Spence says that students — even ones she doesn’t know personally — have reached out to her both at school and on social media to thank her for speaking up. Positivity was tangible at school last week, as students said hello to one another en route to class and stopped outside of the cafeteria to write positive Post-It notes on a wall. Dozens of messages like “Don’t be so hard on yourself” and “We’re in this together” dotted a mural with the words, “Positive thoughts only.”
“It’s been therapeutic,” said junior Savanna Borrero as she scanned the Post-It notes. “I hope people feel less alone,” reflecting on the awareness week. Borrero, an alto, remembers RJ from chorus. A bass, he stood directly behind her and in class, their teacher was known to crack jokes. “I remember his laugh the most,” she said, adding that chorus class has felt empty without hearing it. At their concert this spring, students will dedicate one of their pieces, “The Road Home,” to RJ.
Wise beyond their years, Spence, Borrero, Fontana and Walker all acknowledged that there’s an inequitable focus on physical versus mental health. “If you look on Instagram, people are posting pictures of their fitness — of their biceps or flat stomachs. That’s great and all, but what’s going on inside? Those are the things that people don’t see. We hide those things,” Latorre said, proud of his students’ revelation.
Halligan’s presentation seemed to be the most moving, visceral part of the week.
“He made it a point to let everyone know that if they’re struggling with something, to not keep it in,” Borrero said. One quote in particular stuck with Fontana. “You can always turn an ink blot into a butterfly. He was saying that whatever mistakes you make, you can fix them,” he said. “And you don’t know what people are going through.”
Latorre connected the students with Halligan, recalling a presentation he gave while he was working as an English teacher in Amityville. “His story stayed with me,” Latorre said, adding that the focus on mental health for teens is imperative. “Without mental health, you can’t achieve — you can’t go to work or school. It needs to be your No. 1 priority.”
The quartet of students all said they plan on continuing their efforts next year, and observing mental health awareness again next May.
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