The Black Horse Pike Regional School District hosted its second annual mental health awareness night on March 29, and the virtual event drew over 100 attendees, including students and parents.
“The vision for the night was to promote mental health and reduce the stigma surrounding it,” said Abigail Altman, assistant mental health counselor at Highland Regional High School.
She and other counselors at Timber Creek Regional and Triton Regional high schools hoped the conversations on mental health would help bridge the gap between students in need and local resources.
“It is important for caregivers and educators to understand that their student may be struggling with a diagnosable mental health disorder that is negatively impacting their ability to learn and function,” Altman explained.
The event kicked off with a presentation by Guy Iacono, a psychotherapist from Minding Your Mind in suburban Philadelphia. Called Just Talk About It, the program explored stress, anxiety, depression, suicide and suicide prevention.
“Treatment is available for mental health, and yet only 30 percent of individuals seek it,” Iacono noted. “Shame, guilt, stigma, and fear prevent people from reaching out for help when they should, when they need to.”
The therapist defined stress as “a mental, physical or emotional response to something that creates tension in the body,” an emergency response intended to ensure safety. Although there are positive benefits of stress (or eustress, which is stress that can be beneficial), when the emergency response signal is left on for too long, it can start to create problems.
“When you’re feeling threatened or endangered, whether it’s a true threat (like there’s a fire in the stairwell) or a perceived threat (like studying for an exam, or a social situation), our bodies are going to respond the same,” Iacono said.
He continued to share how stress is relative: What’s stressful for some may be different in others. Being overly stressed can express itself as anger, rage, substance abuse, eating too much or too little, sleeping too much or too little, isolation and self-injury.
Iacono reminded people at the event that anger is a secondary emotion, meaning if anger is present, there’s also a primary emotion that we don’t like to convey, such as guilt, fear, shame or sadness.
Iacono also touched on anxiety, which he characterized as “nervousness, worry, unease” and what if projections into the future.” He described anxiety as the brain catching up to the stress response but noted that it becomes problematic if it lasts longer than six months or prevents getting work done.
Iacono also addressed symptoms of depression that can appear as consistent sadness or hopelessness, a lack of interest in normal activities, difficulty concentrating, sleeping too much or too little, eating too much or too little, substance abuse, suicidal ideation and dramatic changes in mood or activity.
“Though we often think of lower moods, it can also look like elevating moods, and that’s where you get into manic depression and bipolar,” he said.
From there, Iacono talked about suicide and suicidal ideation and how important it is to instill hope, because the feeling of hopelessness plays such a large role in both.
“Recovery is possible,” Iacono advised. “It’s really important to understand when people don’t feel like they have a reason for living, that’s when they’re going to act out in the most irrational or rash ways. Suicide happens when pain, whether it’s physical or emotional, exceeds hope … People don’t want to die by suicide; they want their pain to end. Whether it’s emotional or physical pain, we can alleviate that pain in many different ways”
Altman said the key takeaway of the night is to “notice the signs and ask for help.”
“Over this past year, our world has been faced with an unprecedented pandemic,” she observed. “We see mental-health concerns are greater than ever and it is ok to not be ok. Reach out to your child’s school counseling department. They are in constant contact with local resources and will be able to assist in the process of finding outside resources.”
The counselors look forward to hosting another mental health awareness night next year. May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and to celebrate, mental health counselors in the district’s three high schools have started a monthly “Mental Health Newsletter” that is sent to all staff, students and parents. It highlights mental-health services in the area as well as current information regarding personal health and wellness. Each school will recognize May with weekly activities that will provide education to the school community.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, please dial 911 or call Jefferson Crisis Center at 856-428-4357. You can also call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to reach a 24-hour crisis center or text MHA to 741741 at the Crisis Text Line.