One November day in Gaston County, NC, traffic was at a stand-still on I-85. It was unfortunately caused by a 16-year-old who took her life on the highway. As cars grinded to a halt, a pick-up truck was rear-ended by someone not paying attention. The driver of that truck lost his life.
If someone had recognized the warning signs of suicide in this young girl and gotten her help, two deaths could have been avoided that day.
This incident really affected me. I'm from Gaston County and with all the advocacy work I do in Charlotte as a member of NAMI Charlotte and as a new state board member of NAMI NC, I felt that I had neglected my hometown as a mental health advocate. Also, I know what it’s like to feel the pain of wanting to take your own life.
I felt that way twenty-two years ago on Valentine's Day, 1995. Thank goodness, my aunt heard my cry for help, knew the warning signs and saved my life. When you go through something like that, I feel you are obligated to turn around and help others who are dealing with the same pain. I knew I had to do something in my hometown.
Starting The Conversation In School
I went to Ami Parker, Director of Counseling Services for Gaston County Schools, and told her, "I don’t want to see what happened to the young lady on the Cox Road Bridge happen to another child." I asked her to consider a Mental Health Awareness Week in the Gaston school system. And Ami didn't hesitate. She even took it a step further, planning for the children to take the lead.
She knew kids would respond better to kids and the conversations they would start amongst themselves—and they did. They went online and got information to present to other students that would get them involved. Because of this, kids from middle to high school were truly engaged in the week-long Mental Health Awareness Week. They created posters and banners from everything that said, "See the person, not the illness” to “Our school is #StigmaFree."
I can't tell you how proud I am of the kids being so engaged and involved. One middle schooler told me that she rode the bus with a boy who cut himself. She had told him to “quit cutting” himself, but he didn't. In this teachable moment, I told her that she did the right thing, but he needed more help than she could give. And she needed to let someone know he needed help. The young girl agreed that she would.
This is exactly why events like these are so important. It starts conversations among children. If we can start conversations with children, maybe those conversations can spread to parents.
Steps To Spread Awareness To Schools
If you want to have a Mental Health Awareness Week in your local school, start with the school’s counseling department, like I did. Make sure you’ve done your research on mental health, stigma and suicide, so when you talk to a counselor they’ll see you’ve done your homework. Most counselors would be glad to help you bring this deserving cause to the attention of the principal and teachers. I am so proud of and thankful for Ami Parker and her willingness to be proactive with bringing awareness to mental health. And I’m sure there are more people like her out there. We dedicated our event to the young girl who died by suicide in November, in hopes to stop others kids from going down the same path.
Kids are our next generation. We should be teaching them about the importance of mental health and the warning signs of mental illness. If we teach them well enough, maybe stigma won’t exist once their generation grows up. Maybe they will know when to ask for help and when to offer someone support. Maybe lives will be saved. With the looks of things, I think Gaston County schools are off to a very good start.
Fonda Bryant is very active in the community bringing awareness to mental health. She has been a volunteer with NAMI Charlotte for over three years and recently was elected to the state board of NAMI NC. She also volunteers with MHA of Central Carolinas and with the AFSP. She speaks to the rookie classes of CMPD, and is vocal about mental health, whether on television, in the newspaper or radio, her passion for mental health knows no boundaries.