By Ellie Belcastro
I have had to watch my friends struggle with depression and anxiety. As a high school student, listening and being empathetic seemed to be the only help I could offer them.
I felt helpless. Fifty percent of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14. Ninety percent of self-harm starts in adolescence, usually around age 14. That’s why I stepped forward as an advocate to improve mental health services for youth in Southwest Florida.
My advocacy started when I was asked to help organize the 2020 “Normal is Overrated” event. Normal is Overrated was first established in 2019 by a high school senior, Carly McGovern, to give youth a platform to talk about the mental health challenges we are facing. At the event, student speakers were asked to tell their stories of struggles with mental health. In addition, experts were on hand to provide support and resources.
When Carly went to college, she asked me and two other students to keep the event going. Due to the pandemic, the event in September 2020 was held virtually. You can watch it here.
I’m again honored to help continue the dialogue about the youth mental health epidemic by participating in Kids’ Minds Matter’s Unmasking the Epidemic virtual event planned for March 18.
At the event, some speakers from Normal is Overrated will tell their stories. Community partners will share mental health resources for parents and children. Additionally, a strategic plan for expanding pediatric mental health services will be revealed. The community will need to come together to support these efforts and ensure local youth have access to the mental health care they desperately need.
At the March 18 event, you’ll meet Damini Parkhi, 17, a speaker at Normal is Overrated and one of the 2021 event organizers.
Damini struggled with anxiety and depression that peaked in middle school. To dull the dark thoughts that plagued her, she self-harmed. “My main trigger was I wanted to have some pain, something to get my mind off the pain in my head,” she said.
Eventually, Damini found she could no longer deal with her despair, so she attempted to take her life by taking more than 50 pills. Damini was Baker Acted – a 72-hour involuntary mental health commitment for fear of harm to self or others – four times. – four times.
Today, Damini is in a better place with coping mechanisms, therapy and medication. In the future, she hopes to become a child psychologist and help other children. She wants the community to understand the mental health crisis, made worse by the isolation and uncertainty of the pandemic.
“My inspiration was for kids and teens especially my age to get the support they need,” she said. “There are other people who will support and help you. Sharing my story helped me because if I know I’m helping at least one person, that means the world to me.”
But Damini also understands that she will always need to remain vigilant in her self-care and treatment. “I still have not completed my depression. It’s always going to be there. It’s always going to be in the back corner of my head. Sometimes it gets up and walks to me. I will always keep fighting. I’m not going to let it win. I am still working on myself.”
Another speaker from Normal is Overrated, Kole Yates, will also participate in the Unmasking the Epidemic event. Telling his story at Normal is Overrated was cathartic. “I was empowered to talk about who I am and what has gone on,” he said. “Personally, it made me feel that there was a community that cares about mental health. It makes us feel we helped someone out there.”
Bullied in middle school for being gay, Kole struggled with how his family would react. As a child, he struggled with ADHD, depression and anxiety.
In middle school, he was careful about what he revealed about himself and to whom. “It hurts to have to put on a show and a facade for everyone,” he said. “It’s sad you have to shuffle your way into those conversations. It’s so scary to be yourself and be with people who don’t feel the same way about it.”
In high school, he decided to work to make his school more inclusive by starting a LBGTQ club. He was the first male cheerleader. He participated in musical theater. “I did something with a lot of other people at my school to make a difference — to be unapologetically ourselves and authentic.”
During the pandemic, he has experienced challenges. His therapy stopped when his therapist got COVID-19. Also, he was isolated at home, attending school virtually. All the things that he loved doing, musical theater and being with friends have been paused. He feels a little like he’s been paused, too. “I have felt very stunted in my creative flow because of COVID.”
Addressing the Youth Mental Health Epidemic
I was surprised by the things that many kids had experienced when we interviewed potential speakers for Normal Is Overrated. They were not kid problems. They are not even adult problems.
I have watched my friends struggle. It hurts so much to see friends go through these things. There is a stigma surrounding mental illness, but it shouldn’t be an uncomfortable conversation.
Damini, Kole and the Normal is Overrated team want everyone to know how many people are dealing with these challenges. We know that sharing stories and resources will help. The community should know what is happening.
“We are the future,” Kole said. “It’s super important to want our youth to be OK and be all right. Mental health matters for everyone. It’s easier to cope with a little bit of help. ”
Join us on March 18 to Unmask the Epidemic and help our youth in need of mental health services.
About the Author
Ellie Belcastro is a senior at Fort Myers High School and one of three student organizers of the 2020 Normal is Overrated presentation.