Being a teenager today comes with great responsibility. Between school, extracurriculars, work, and more, it is difficult to juggle everything while keeping mental health a high priority. Due to social stigma, mental illness has historically been perceived as a weakness. Although we know people with mental illness cannot simply heal by themselves, our reluctance to begin that conversation has significant implications. Catalyzed by modern pressures, anxiety, and depression rates are on the rise among teenagers; suicide has become the third leading cause of death in the United States. These rates are particularly high in men, who often internalize mental health issues for fear of their masculinity being questioned. During regional elections this past May, Wisconsin AZA leaders made it clear that action must be taken in our community.
The strongest way to start addressing the mental health crisis is through talking about the issue. The stigma thrives on silence; removing judgment and working to understand one another is crucial. To initiate that conversation, MENtal Health was open to all masculine-identifying teens ages 13+ as well as their parents and guardians. Adults must be aware of the unique challenges teenagers face with mental health; having an event open to teens and parents alike gives more opportunity for these critical conversations.
MENtal health began with an introduction led by the Alephs on the planning committee. A short animated video was shown, which gave insight into the diversity of mental health issues. The video provided a basic platform to begin discussions. From there, to further normalize the conversation, one of our regional board members opened up about his struggles with mental health. Hearing him tell his journey made everyone realize mental illness can affect anybody. The introduction was one of the first steps to break the barriers.
After the introduction, teenagers and parents split into different groups. Five local mental health professionals led various sessions. Every teenager participated in two sessions; one explained that despite struggles with mental health, no one is alone. Dr. Adam Margolis, MSN, APNP, L.Ac. spoke about the stigma and how one has the power to counter it. He related the stigma with a story from the Talmud as well as a song. In the second teen session, Mr. Zach Meyer, MA, LPC, talked about different sources of anxiety and stress, as well as how to manage it. He provided insight explaining how to recognize when commitments become too much, why self-care is important, and other methods to proactively address anxiety.
All parents began the afternoon sessions with Brandon Wells, MS, LPC. Mr. Wells spoke about the unique mental health challenges teenagers face today. Living in a digital age mixed with heightened responsibilities is difficult for parents to relate to; attempting to understand and sympathize with the differences is a vital step. From there, moms and dads split off into two different sessions. Aaron Heffernan, LCSW, MSW led the session for dads; he talked about initiating conversations about emotions between fathers and sons. Dr. Alicia Meyer, PSY.D., LPC led the session for moms; she addressed the challenges moms have when trying to talk about mental health with teens. A lot of these difficulties, attributed to the difference in age and gender, put a strain on mother-son relationships. Talking about the steps to take in response was an influential piece of dialogue.
Finally, we all came together to listen to our three keynote speakers: Brett Andrews, a host on iHeartRadio, Harrison Ross, a former member of AEPi, and Rabbi David Cohen. All three of them talked about their unique experiences and perspectives regarding mental health. MENtal Health was a very successful event, helping break the stigma and initiate conversations: but it was only a start. Generating more discourse is needed to uplift a culture influenced by the stigma. With a willingness to talk about mental health among teens, parents, teachers, students, athletes, coaches, and everybody in between, it is entirely possible to see a stigma-free world. Mental illness is just as serious of an issue as physical health is; addressing it, however, can be much more within reach.
Josh Elkin is an Aleph from Wisconsin Region and his favorite band is Florence + The Machine.
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