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Student-led campaigns tackle tough mental health issues

By SHAWNE K. WICKHAM
New Hampshire Union Leader

September 16. 2018 9:54PM
Hannah Guillemette, a freshman at Bedford High School, started I Got Your Back, an anti-bullying campaign, in the town's elementary and middle schools. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)
Youth film, writing contest
The New Hampshire Children's Behavioral Health Collaborative is sponsoring a film and writing contest for young people to raise awareness of mental health issues.
“Magnify Voices” is for youth in grades 5 through 12. Students can submit two-minute films or creative writing pieces.
Submission categories are:
• Five Things I/We Wish People Knew about Mental Health;
• No Shame: Erase the Stigma;
• This is How I/We REACT;
• S.O.S. (Stamp out Stress): Coping Skills and Self Care; and
• Create Your Own Theme.
Other contest partners are NAMI New Hampshire, Dartmouth-Hitchcock, NFI North, Inc., Reaching Higher NH, the state Department of Education's Office of Student Wellness, New Hampshire Teen Institute and Youth M.O.V.E. NH.
Submissions are due by March 1. Winners will receive cash prizes and be invited to an awards ceremony. For contest rules and resources, visit www.magnifyvoices.org.



Bright, talented and poised, Hannah Guillemette doesn’t seem like an obvious target of bullying. But she was, and so were some of her friends.

So Guillemette, now a Bedford High School freshman, launched her “I’ve Got Your Back” campaign when she was still in middle school. “It got too much,” she said. “People have to stop being mean to people.”

As New Hampshire schools increasingly take on behavioral health challenges such as bullying, suicide and trauma, some students are leading the way.

Guillemette, who turns 15 next month, created an “anti-bullying and kindness” campaign with the message: “Be a voice for those who need one.”

She speaks to student groups, handing out blue IGYB wristbands and sending home a message to parents that encourages them to talk about kindness with their children. And she’s enlisting younger kids at middle and elementary schools to serve as IGYB “ambassadors.”

Guillemette’s campaign got the attention of Gov. Chris Sununu; she is meeting with him today to talk about anti-bullying efforts.

Another student-led campaign will also be unveiled today in Concord, featuring high school athletes in an effort to raise awareness of mental health issues in their schools.

R.E.A.C.T. is a partnership among Dartmouth-Hitchcock, the state Department of Education and New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association. It’s an offshoot of the Change Direction initiative spearheaded by former New Hampshire Supreme Court Chief Justice John Broderick, who is now senior director of public affairs at Dartmouth-Hitchcock.

It’s a simple idea but one Broderick hopes will be effective: Posters featuring smiling student athletes with the message: “You’re never alone when you have the whole team behind you.”

The campaign encourages students who are struggling with emotional or mental health issues to seek help from their peers and caring adults. Students from Nashua High School South are featured on the prototype poster.

Kendall Bush, 17, is a senior at Nashua South. She plays soccer and basketball and runs track; this year she is a captain of all three teams and serves on the athletic leadership council.

Her own family has been touched by tragedy; a cousin had mental health issues and died of a drug overdose when Bush was in 6th grade. “People look at people and you don’t know their story,” Bush said.

“We want to give people the chance to talk to us and be able to talk about their problems so that we can help them instead of them taking paths that can be dangerous.”

Kids are more likely to talk with other kids than with adults, Bush said. She hopes the poster campaign is just the start; she said schools need to foster more supportive conversations about mental health and addiction issues.

“I don’t just want to be a picture on a poster or a picture in the newspaper,” she said. “I actually want action.”

Julie Balaban is a child psychiatrist at Dartmouth-Hitchcock. She said adolescence is a time “when the peer group becomes the most important group, having either a positive or a negative impact.”

So looking out for people who are marginalized becomes really important, she said. “I think having the athletes or other people that are seen as being popular or successful can be helpful in a number of ways,” she said. “If those kids can be supportive, then that’s a good role model for everybody else.”

In addition, she said, having conversations around mental health can help other kids realize that some of the popular kids struggle with these issues too. And that, she said, “can be very powerful.”

This poster, featuring student athletes from Nashua High School South, is a prototype for a new campaign to raise awareness in schools about mental health issues. The new campaign will be unveiled Monday in Concord.

Nate Mazerolle, the athletic coordinator at Nashua South, said his athletes who are part of R.E.A.C.T. understand that they’re taking on a larger responsibility to support students who are struggling.

“If there’s a poster in the hallway with this group of kids and it says we’re all on the same team, maybe, just maybe, someone will feel a little bit better about themselves,” Mazerolle said. “This is our hope anyway.”

“And if nothing else, that conversation might allow that student in need to feel less lonely and whatever issues they’re dealing with, they can at least have someone to talk to.”

Broderick wants to see R.E.A.C.T. posters in every school, featuring local students. Dartmouth-Hitchcock is partnering with the New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletics Association to get more schools involved in the campaign.

“Part of it is to make people feel better who are suffering,” Broderick said. “Secondly, it’s to help accelerate conversations in those schools on mental health.”

And finally, he hopes that parents will see their youngsters leading the way on these issues and join the conversation. He believes this generation can reduce the shame and stigma around mental illness.

In Bedford, Ann Guillemette has been helping her daughter on the IGYB campaign; she’s forming a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization so the program can spread.

Hannah, she said, has always been the kind of kid who cares for others; she’s been a bell-ringer for the Salvation Army every year since she was small. And she has befriended kids who had disabilities that sometimes made them targets of teasing, she said.

Knowing her own daughter was bullied at school was heartbreaking, Guillemette said. But, she said, “Hannah took lemons and made lemonade out of them.”

The IGYB campaign has gotten support from Morgana Isenberg, a Goffstown woman whose 12-year-old stepson Jack died from suicide in May, after years of bullying. Isenberg left an IGYB bracelet in memory of Jack at a shrine during a recent trip to New Mexico.

Nashua senior Bush said these kinds of programs really need to start in the lower grades. By high school, she said, most students realize that there’s life after graduation, that things will get better. But she said, “In middle school, there’s that thought, ‘I have seven more years of this’.”

“Once someone bullies you, you feel like that’s it, there’s no escape.”

For students who are struggling with mental health issues, Bush said, “A lot of times they think they’re alone and they don’t have anyone.”

That’s why, she said, “I think that it’s important to just keep sending the message: Hey, we are here.”

Beyond the Stigma, a series exploring solutions to the state’s addiction and mental health challenges, is sponsored by the New Hampshire Solutions Journalism Lab at the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications and funded by the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, NAMI New Hampshire, and private individuals. Contact reporter Shawne K. Wickham at swickham@unionleader.com.

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