By Meryl Orlando

I’m in my darkened room.

I don’t want the light on.

I can’t explain this awful feeling.

Why do I feel this way?

What’s wrong with me?

I wonder if anyone knows how I feel.

This can’t be normal.

I don’t want to tell anyone how I feel.

I don’t want to tell anyone at school.

I don’t want to walk into someone’s office and say that I need help.

I don’t want people to think that I’m weird or that something is wrong with me.

Mental illness still carries a stigma, and, sadly, the issues are more pervasive than ever. Whether it’s the isolation of using social media, increasing academic pressure and expectations, or difficulty navigating relationships, our students are suffering. Wouldn’t it be great to finally admit our challenges and say out loud that we are human, that we all have issues, that it’s OK to feel what we are feeling, and that it’s OK to be who we are right now?

Fortunately, South Brunswick High School seems to be thinking along the same lines. In August 2015, the high school unveiled the district’s “Dashboard Goals.” Four goals were selected for the high school: self-regulation, school climate, physical wellness and mental health wellness. I immediately took note of the mental health wellness goal and thought about the challenges in meeting it.

Having dealt with some mental health issues in my own life, and knowing others in similar situations, I knew that people are sometimes reluctant to seek help. Despite the fact that we have wonderful services at South Brunswick High School, I knew that there had to be students who wouldn’t knock on the door of a student assistance counselor or who wouldn’t make an appointment with their guidance counselor to seek help.

What if the student who felt alone and “weird” was able to meet professionals from throughout the mental health field in a casual and fun environment? What if it was all part of an upbeat, informative, and well-attended student event where everyone felt comfortable learning, participating and starting important conversations?

The South Brunswick High School Mental Health Wellness Fair—which we’ve now held two years in a row—was born out of that dream. If we could make the event festive, fun and informative, I believed all students would want to take part. Those who really needed help could begin the conversation with representatives from treatment and recovery groups and still be among those who would be perusing the tables discovering ways to de-stress.

The need for this type of event is validated by the statistics. In 2015, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated three million adolescents in the U.S. aged 12 to 17 had at least one major depressive episode within the year—that’s 12.5 percent of the U.S. population in that age group.

According to TeenHelp.com, untreated depression is the number one cause of suicide and the third leading cause of death among teenagers. Ninety percent of suicide victims suffer from a mental illness, and suffering from depression can make a teenager as much as 12 times more likely to attempt suicide. Less than 33 percent of teens with depression get help, yet 80 percent of teens with depression can be successfully treated.

Students sample aromatherapy oils with Jason Wendroff-Rawnicki of the Shine Yoga Center.

Getting started and keeping it going

I spoke to one of our vice principals, April Gonzalez, and the supervisor of Student Assistance and Wellness, Amy Finkelstein, who were both heading up the Mental Health Wellness subcommittee. In that first year, school librarian Shannon Kish expressed interest in working on the Fair Committee. We worked together and were assisted by several members of the Guidance Department.

With a successful inaugural fair under our belt and a commitment to make this a yearly event, I spoke with April Gonzalez in the summer of 2016 to get administrative approval and to explore dates for this year’s fair in the spring. We put it on the calendar and began planning.

We reached out to local treatment centers, followed up on referrals from our nurses and student assistance counselors, and made calls and sent emails to providers we found in local and reputable wellness publications.

We reached out to the private sector to secure funds instead of dipping into our own pockets—as was the case last year—to fund the event. One of our team members reached out to private sponsors and was able to secure some funds in the form of cash, gift cards and raffle prizes.

The theme for this year’s fair, “Stop the Stigma…Stamp out the Stress,” was meant to address the heavy-duty mental health issues that many students face, as well as to introduce them to new—and fun—methods for reducing the stress in their lives. We bought brightly colored tablecloths and blew up polka dot balloons. We included music and smoothie-making. We had a coloring table, a positive thoughts table, a crocheting table, yoga table and a Zentangle table. Zentangle is a relaxing way to create beautiful images by drawing structured patterns. It increases focus and creativity, provides artistic satisfaction along with an increased sense of personal well-being.

At a craft store, I found a set of coloring books that I just loved. In the books, author Jess Volinski extended an invitation to her fans to get in touch with her to share their beautiful work. I emailed her to tell her what we were doing and to ask permission to reproduce her pages. She got right back to me, thrilled that we were going to introduce her work to help students de-stress. She told me that she wanted to contribute some of her books to us. We used them, along with colored pencils that I purchased with a donated gift card from Target, as raffle prizes.

The goal of making the fair as comprehensive as possible guided who we contacted and the choices we made. We called presenters who attended last year and added additional presenters, mostly through referrals. We anticipate adding even more presenters next year. We sought the participation of related student groups such as HiTops and the Gay Straight Alliance as well as the Sweet and Savory Club, which created stress-reducing smoothies using a bicycle lent to us by Chartwell’s Dining Services. Pedaling the stationary bike rotates the blades on a smoothie blender.

Increasing student foot traffic

After considering several locations in the school building, we decided to hold the fair in the alcove outside our cafeteria. Students could finish their lunches and then step out of their respective cafeterias into the fair area. It proved to be the perfect spot.

We created a detailed floor plan that allowed for smooth traffic flow, took into account our presenters’ electrical and technological needs, and encouraged students to visit presenters from one end of the fair to the other. We worked with the custodial staff to secure additional tables and to assist in set-up.

Our school runs on block scheduling so we asked presenters to arrive at 8:30 a.m. for set-up, which is one half hour prior to our second block. Our physical education supervisor and his department supported us in sending the gym and health classes to the fair beginning second block. Our Help and Access teachers and various other teachers who were able to spare the block brought their classes to the fair as well.

All three lunches were extremely well-attended. Last year, we had about 400 students attend the fair. This year, we estimate that almost 600 attended.

Teamwork makes a difference

To plan and execute the fair, we had a great team that included guidance counselors, nurses, and teachers. Aaron Millman, a student assistance wellness counselor with whom I worked closely, brought a wealth of information and contacts to the table.  This fair required the cooperation and shared intent of many other players as well, including food service staff, administrators, custodians, and other support staff.

This year, we added student volunteer participation. We had a student volunteer coordinator and held student interest orientation sessions.

Students staffed areas such as the stress ball table, the positive thoughts table and the coloring table. Students also baked treats and sold them as a fundraiser to support the fair. They made posters and signs, and worked with the Sweet and Savory Club to prepare many pounds of bread dough for the stress ball table. Students also acted in a short promotional video, which two members of our committee created for our school’s television network to broadcast.

Publicizing the fair

In the weeks leading up to the fair we worked to generate publicity. We reached out to South Brunswick’s Community Resource Team, which includes the police department, the public health department, senior services, the mayor’s office, local clergy, and more. We wanted to let them know about the good work that we were doing to address mental health in our schools and invited them to attend. A message about the event was also shared in a South Brunswick High School parent newsletter.

Counselors from our elementary and middle schools were invited to join us, to make connections with our presenters and learn more about the mental health needs at the high school level. Several of them were excited to make stress balls, talk about nutrition and come away with new resources for the K-8 level.

The staff of our Bridge Center program (a school-based mental health program staffed by Rutgers clinicians) promoted excitement for the event by creating posters related to mental health facts and reducing stigma.

A librarian from the public library set up a table with books related to mental health as well as bookmarks with resources, apps and websites. She shared upcoming library programs that promote creativity, academic support and a safe space after school.

Students learn how to create stress balls using bread dough and balloons from Isha Patel and Avantika Thakur (l-r).

Planning for future fairs

In an effort to assess the value of the fair, we solicited feedback from the presenters.

“I had a student come up during the fair and ask about our services,” said Ben Brisson, the director of the Bridge Center. “She said that she was new to the district, and had difficulty connecting with her counselor and case manager. She told me that she was familiar with the Bridge program, but did not know where we were located. She explained that she was looking for some support in the school when she was struggling. I feel as though if we had not had that table, we may not have made that connection.”

“The comments we heard from students were positive,” another presenter said. “Some students liked hearing about therapy and others were interested in working in mental health in the future.”

One treatment program presenter noted that a student who appeared isolated came back a number of times just to talk. The same presenter mentioned another student who approached her saying, “I think I need that program—my family says I’m crazy.”

A few presenters mentioned that anxiety was a concern many students expressed.

Final thoughts

If you think you would like to have a mental health fair in your school, following are some tips I’ve learned and want to share.

People are happy to be a part of something so worthwhile. Collect and work with a committed team. Reach out to the people in your community. “Sharing the wealth” will make everyone’s role manageable.

Make sure that you have enough materials for the hundreds of stress balls that students will want to create. Bread dough or Play-Doh and balloons are all that you need to make these simple but fun de-stressors. We ran out of supplies within an hour and had to make more bread dough and shop for more balloons in the middle of the fair!

Don’t be afraid to reach out to area businesses to support your fair. We used a raffle as a way to encourage visits to various presenters. Each student received an activity card to be stamped by the presenters. Students could turn the card in to win prizes. We were fortunate to receive support for those prizes and other fair expenses from Princeton Fitness and Wellness, Target, Whole Foods, Best Buy, AMC Theatres, Shine Yoga Center, Conte’s Pizza, JaZams, and Lindt Chocolate.

Most important, if you see the need for students in your school to receive help in the area of mental health, consider an activity such as a mental health fair. Your efforts will go far toward making the area of mental health as mainstream as physical health. The many positive comments that you’ll hear and receive as well as the enthusiasm that will be generated from the fair will make all of your time and effort well worth it. 

Meryl Orlando is a Family and Consumer Sciences teacher at South Brunswick High School. She would be delighted to serve as a resource to NJEA members who are considering a similar fair in their schools. She can be reached at Meryl.Orlando@sbschools.org.

Guidance counselor and club advisor Anastasia Marcella and intern Jessica Molnar (seated l-r) are joined by Hi-Tops students Kariman Shama and Yahzini Shanmugan (standing l-r) at the GSA and Hi-Tops table.

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