Eoghan and Orlaigh are Transition Year students from Largy College in Clones Co. Monaghan and are members of the Young Social Innovators (YSI) team who have been named as challenge winners for Making Our World Healthier – Mental Health. In their own words…
If anything sets “Mend a Mind – It’s a Disorder Not a Decision” apart from most other mental health campaigns – it’s the fact that we don’t sugar-coat the negative side of Mental Health, but we still manage to shed a positive light on the topic.
When it came to choosing which issue to tackle for our Young Social Innovators’ project, it was a no-brainer. Mental Health was always a topic close to our hearts and affected us all considerably either personally or through family and friends. Our year group in particular has had its share of issues with bullying, self-harm and students missing school due to a range of different mental health issues. Thus we felt it was imperative to positively channel these raw experiences to make a change for the better.
Stigma was the norm surrounding Mental Health when we were younger. The topic was always a taboo subject. We were surrounded by rumours and whispers that we couldn’t quite comprehend. Some adults in our community were grieving over loved ones they’d lost to suicide – only no one spoke to us about the reasons behind their death. We were told to leave the room when it was being discussed over tea between our parents and their friends. That seemed to be the only time it was discussed – through gossip; and in these conversations, it often seemed to be the victim’s fault.
Our ‘Mend a Mind’ project has one fundamental aim: to eliminate stigma surrounding everything Mental Health. How do you do that? By getting people talking. This is much easier said than done. We had to be truly tenacious, innovative and original.
The project involved numerous activities. From peer education workshops in other schools, to planting yellow primroses in our town to introducing a meditation programme as a tool for teachers, to a community wellness event that promoted physical activity, good nutrition, mindfulness and relaxation and even simply chatting over a cup of tea – we were determined, throughout this venture, to emphasise the importance of minding your mind. But perhaps the activities that had the greatest impact were our project launch peer- information classes – (broaching the subject was a big deal), our community ‘Lighting up the Darkness’ event, our short film and our Flashmob.
Making a good first impression was key when it came to introducing this topic with our school community. Mental Health Week 2016 seemed like a perfect opportunity to launch our project through a peer information class. Imparting information, encouraging discussion, showing how and where to get help were only some of the aspects discussed in this launch class. It was so encouraging to see how our information was received. We think that students were more open to the information coming from fellow students, perhaps embracing the sincerity of our efforts, recognising the varying places that we, as individuals, were coming from. They just knew that we understood their perspective.
For many of us, our Lighting up the Darkness event was a hugely emotional evening. Who would have thought that decorating over 700 glass jars and lighting candles in them would result in such an uplifting and heart-warming event, promoting positive Mental Health? The community responded in a way we could never have hoped for. Emotions ran high in the crowd of over 500 people who came out on that cold October evening. Age and gender were irrelevant as tears flowed. There was a palpable feeling of relief and gratitude. We as a community seemed to experience some sort of catharsis. Our group were simply overwhelmed by the positive feedback we received for this event. It was indeed, magical but also very sad. It was most humbling for us as we recognised families in attendance who had been touched, in the most ferocious of ways, by mental illness.
An aspect of our campaign that has been particularly successful is our video-making. We used video to advertise, to showcase our work and to produce our own short film about depression. Never did we think our videos would reach hundreds of thousands of people and promote our message on such a colossal scale. It ended up being arguably, our most efficient method of eliminating stigma. It still amazes us how our short film, ‘Explaining my Depression to my Mother’ can silence a room instantly and how watching it, repeatedly brings several of us to tears, despite us having watched it umpteen times.
Throughout this project, we have learned to appreciate the value of the Arts as a means of delivering our message. We used painting and photography to not only impart our message, but also as forms of therapy in the workshops we delivered to our community and beyond. Likewise with music and dance. Art (in all its forms) touches the soul in ways that practical information cannot.
Our Mental Health “Flashmob” had a particularly interesting storyline. It told the story of a girl who was struggling with her Mental Health, losing the patience and respect of her best friend in the progress. After being abandoned in her time of need, she is manipulated by the destructive demons in her mind. Eventually, she received comfort from her friends and community and she was grateful for the support. But that didn’t change the fact that she was suffering. We left the story with the girl still struggling with her Mental Health – however, she was enveloped by a sense of community. Awareness was spreading and she didn’t have to be ashamed of her condition any longer. She was taking those first tentative steps on the road to recovery.
We did not see merit in a “fairy-tale ending”, believing rather that when it comes to portraying mental illness, it is much better to be honest and realistic. Sugar-coating was not for us. That only feeds into the stigma we are trying to break. Our Flashmob and Short Film are testaments to this concept.
Overall, “Mend a Mind” has been one of the most beneficial and rewarding projects to participate in. It’s allowed us to work with every age group in our community and beyond. We feel that we have engaged many people in the conversation and indeed that we have empowered our small community to have a say in perhaps one of the most urgent issues in today’s society. The opportunities that the YSI Programme has given us and the phenomenal feedback we’ve received about our work has only fuelled our ambition to continue in our quest to eliminate the stigma surrounding Mental Health.
The Young Social Innovators of the Year National Awards 2017 will take place on Thursday 11th May 2017 at the Convention Centre Dublin. For more information on how to get involved with Young Social Innovators check out youngsocialinnovators.ie
You can also check out the Mend a Mind Facebook page here.