Voices of Youth: How mental health stigma affects Washtenaw County's young people

Our new Voices of Youth series launches with a look at how local young people are speaking up about, and pursuing solutions to, the stigma associated with mental health challenges.
This article is part of Concentrate's Voices of Youth series, which features content created by Washtenaw County youth in partnership with Concentrate mentors, as well as feature stories by adult writers that examine issues of importance to local youth. In this installment, Concentrate staffer Jaishree Drepaul-Bruder chats with local young people about mental health stigma – an issue of importance raised in our listening sessions with local youth.

Ypsilanti Community High School student Morrissio Weatherspoon was only a preschooler when he witnessed his father beat his mother within an inch of her life. The 17-year-old has had to face the trauma resulting from that event every day since. His journey to healing has involved deep dives and looking within. But it's also meant sharing his story, and contributing to finding solutions to an issue that more local youth are speaking out on: the stigma associated with mental health challenges. 

"I ain't gonna lie. I've been really going through troubles since that day in so many ways, and I don't know if the whole thing is ever going to go away," Weatherspoon says. "I can't see the future, but I remember once seeing a sign that said that if you want to see change in the world, then you need to go and be it."

He adds, however, that "when you go out into the world, there's people that come with it," and  Weatherspoon has often found himself stigmatized by both adults and other youth. He says many other personal experiences, including losing family members to gun violence, have left him with "some really bad battle scars," but he's working on healing.  

Today, Weatherspoon is committed to "staying grounded and settled, for real" and letting go of things from his past that he can't change. He's thrown himself into becoming a star athlete and musician, sometimes using his songs as a way to communicate his heart to his friends and family. He says he wishes he could communicate to adults that youth like him need more open, face-to-face conversations about mental health. 

"A lot of adults don't see that we have a lot of back-to-back pressures from school, work, home, friends, and we need help seeing different ways of dealing with our stress," he says. "As youth, we are still trying to see beauty in the world. There have been so many things in the world and in our lives that we have been exposed to and we just don't know how to deal with them."

Challenging stigma together

For many years, Lisa Gentz, Washtenaw County Community Mental Health's (WCCMH) program administrator for millage initiatives, has been at the forefront of shedding light on mental health challenges for Washtenaw County youth. Through WCCMH's #wishyouknew campaign, a joint effort with the Washtenaw County Health Department, the two organizations have gathered valuable insight into the support young people need to address mental health stigma. 

Gentz points to millage-funded mini-grant campaigns that are allowing several local middle schools and high schools to have peer-to-peer anti-stigma mental health campaigns. The funds have helped students put together their own, school-specific mental health anti-stigma campaigns.

"The schools are doing very different things, from in-school mental health libraries to resource lists to mental health fairs," Gentz says. "It's so cool to see the ways that students are taking action to care for their mental health and their peers' mental health."

Right now, Gentz says her organization has never been busier and requests for youth mental health services "are just through the roof." Jennifer Schwartz, behavioral health manager at Corner Health Center in Ypsilanti, says that's not too surprising. 

"All of the politics – the wars happening, sexuality concerns, racism, school shootings, what's happening with COVID-19, isolation, and many youth losing family members during this time – it's a lot to deal with mentally," Schwartz says. "I'm seeing, more than ever, young folks connecting with an identity of someone with a mental health concern, and seeking out each other for support, which is good because that reduces stigma."

Time to talk

Corner Health's mission is to inspire 12- to 25-year-olds to achieve and maintain healthy lives by providing judgment-free, affordable health and wellness care and education. Harshini Anand, Hasini Anand, and Tamarus Darby are members of Corner Health's Youth Leadership Council, where they have the opportunity to support and learn from each other.
Harshini and Hasini Anand.
Darby says he's been finding that people don't realize that youth have varied experiences and that the mental health impacts of the same event can be different from person to person.

"I have friends who were really anxious about going back to school [after the COVID-19 pandemic] and couldn't deal with it, especially if this was their first year of high school,'' he says. "But for me, it was the opposite. It would have been bad for my mental health if I didn't go back."

He's not alone in his concern about cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all approaches to conversations about youth and mental health concerns.

"It's very easy for youth to become fixated on one operating definition of mental health, like 'this is what anxiety or depression looks like,' so it's important for us to talk to each other," says Harshini Anand. Anand adds that while more open discussions can be positive, they must also be sincere.

"It's kind of cool and edgy to talk about mental health right now, so we need to be careful not to get into conversations that are disingenuous," she says. "Are you talking to someone who shares the same mental health struggles, or are you talking to someone who is just getting in on the trendiness?"

When Hasini Anand thinks about what kind of support youth need for their mental health, she points to an awareness of the growing influence of social media and the misformation that abounds there.
Hasini Anand.
"We've got access to all kinds of social media, but we need to know how to get the right help. One of the downfalls of the social media climate is that there's a lot of false information, and that can be damaging in the long run," she says. 

She finds hope in the fact that more people, young and old, are working together in the community to address young people's concerns. But she says there also needs to be more effort in such a layered area of health.

"There is definitely more that can be done to help us destigmatize our mental health challenges. We're here and ready to talk about things. It's more progressive, and people are willing to reach out to us, but I don't think we're 100% there yet," she says.

Like Weatherspoon, the group stresses that at the end of the day, they need the adults in their lives to step forward.
Harshini Anand.
"You just can't pass the baton to us and tell us to find a way to deal with the issues," says Harshini Anand. "The reality is that a lot of us are still in school, a lot of us are working, and a lot of us are young and learning, so we need you to advocate for us. Use your voice to be our voice."

Jaishree Drepaul-Bruder is a freelance writer and editor currently based in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at jaishreeedit@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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