Health & Medicine

Hash tags, selfies spread mental health message to Sacramento teens

Getting through high school is tough. Doing it with a mental illness can be brutal.

So local teens and outreach organizations teamed up at McKinley Park Saturday to provide education and resources to teens struggling with mental illness and to get the message out that they are not alone.

Speeches from a number of young advocates addressed just a few of the mental health challenges that young people face - depression, anxiety, eating disorders and suicide attempts among them. Still the mood was hopeful in the Clunie Community Center, decorated for the day with inspirational posters and interactive art.

Jordana Steinberg, daughter of former state senate leader Darrell Steinberg, kicked off the day with her own story of living with a rare mood disorder, encouraging attendees to stay around positive people and never give up on themselves.

Saturday’s event was the first major youth initiative from Sacramento County’s “Mental Illness: It’s Not What You Think” campaign - a project that launched three years ago with Proposition 63 funds and has since created billboards, storytelling events and culturally-focused resources around stigma.

The resource fair featured pizza, a DJ, raffle drawings and a selfie station, where attendees could take pictures next to the “Wall of Hope” - a collage of supportive chalk messages. About two dozen organizations manned tables, including Each Mind Matters, La Familia Counseling Center and River Oak Center for Children. The event, which was organized by youth already involved in the project, drew about 115 attendees including community advocates, high school students, children in foster homes and family members.

Darrell Steinberg, now the director of policy and advocacy for the new UC Davis Behavioral Health Center of Excellence, said starting with youth is crucial to alleviating the stigma that prevents some mental illness sufferers from seeking help.

“Every kid who is living with this either because of a biochemical or hereditary issue or because of their life circumstances should get the help they need,” he said. “So that they never have to suffer the consequences of untreated mental illness.”

About one in five youth experience a mental health issue in their lifetime, said Julie Leung, project lead for the county campaign.

People who do not understand mental illness can send harmful messages to sufferers, even if unintentionally. Such messages may be more difficult to handle for youth who have less experience with negative reactions to mental illness, Leung said. Bringing young people together can help.

“We know that peer support and peers educating each other is very powerful,” she said. “The people who are stigmatizing and discriminating are not aware of mental illness - what it is and what it means. That’s the challenge.”

Kekoa Bajet, a 19-year-old American Legion High School graduate, said he experienced depression and anxiety in high school and initially struggled to find the help he needed. He now volunteers with Creating Community Solutions, a local group working to spark mental health dialogue through social media.

“Mental health has the opportunity to be everything besides bad,” he said. “Coming here today, seeing everybody here, it’s better for me because it makes me feel hopeful about tomorrow.”

Other County-sponsored events in honor of National Mental Health Month:

· May 4 – 29: Stop by the Sierra Health Foundation lobby (1321 Garden Highway) during business hours to view expressive artwork from Sacramento County residents who have been impacted by a mental illness.

· May 9 – Attend Stigma Free 2015 at Clunie Community Center at McKinley Park from 11 am – 2 pm. Hosted by the project, the youth event will feature live music from 102.5 KSFM, spoken word performances, raffle prizes and more

· May 18 – 22: Visit the art display along the wall outside of the governor’s office at the State Capitol which features art pieces from local Sacramento County residents. The artwork was created by people of all ages and cultures in Sacramento County and in California.