York County teens fighting stigma of mental-health issues
About 80 students, representing every school district in York County, met with county officials and leaders Monday morning to discuss ways to end the stigma of mental illness and to ensure mental-health resources are available to everyone who needs them, especially the county's youth.
The professionals who participated in the town hall-style meeting encouraged students to stay involved and urged them to fight for change by working with their school districts, county commissioners and state legislators.
"You have to work together, and you have to share resources ... to see serious, sustainable change," United Way Executive Director Bob Woods counseled.
And Steve Warren, administrator of York County's mental health and intellectual/developmental disabilities programs, encouraged the teens to consider careers in the human-services sector.
"We need good young professionals," he said.
Working together: The students, all part of the York County Youth Mental Health Alliance, are working on ways to engage their peers and the community as a whole with billboards and T-shirts and on social media in an effort to educate the public about mental-health issues and deficiencies in resources.
York County Common Pleas Judge Todd Platts, who previously served as a Republican U.S. congressman for this area, fielded a question about the needs of LGBT teens, saying there must be parity in the rights of all people, no matter their sexual orientation.
"The problem here is there is an ignorance (about LGBT people)," he said. "You have legislators who are not informed."
Platts cited North Carolina's "bathroom law," which requires people to use public restrooms that correspond to the gender on their birth certificates, and called it "a very wrong-headed policy" crafted by legislators who don't understand LGBT issues.
"These were issues that weren't openly discussed when we were your age," Platts told the students. "(Being LGBT) is not a choice. ... It's who you are."
He urged the teens to meet with their state and federal representatives, as well as with Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, to make their concerns known.
"You can have a huge impact," Platts predicted.
Getting involved: York City Councilwoman Sandie Walker encouraged alliance members to attend their home school-board meetings to find out what policies exist for offering mental-health services to students and protecting LGBT students' rights — and also to lobby for change if that's needed.
Woods told students that in addition to being the United Way CEO, he also belongs to the Healthy York County Coalition, which offers a website to help people determine whether they're suffering from depression and, if so, where they can go for help.
That website, feeling-blue.com, was created by the Healthy York and Healthy Adams county coalitions, along with WellSpan. It is intended to help people suffering from mild depression and those who know someone who might be suffering from mild depression, according to Deborah Gogniat, of the Healthy York County Coalition.
Warren asked students whether they were aware that their schools have student-assistance programs to help those struggling with depression and other mental-health issues. Less than half of the alliance members knew about the programs.
He said every high school in York County has the program implemented and that it focuses on peers helping peers.
Warren told the students to make sure their school's program is well-run and that all their fellow students know about it.
"You have to advocate and go through the chain of command" in order to effect change, Walker told the teens. She also suggested they start a Facebook page for their alliance and offer tips for students who are dealing with issues such as cyber-bullying.
Just call 211: The panel also made students aware of the 211 centralized information and referral service in Pennsylvania, where state residents can simply dial 211 and speak with a trained operator who has a resource directory at his or her fingertips. That resource directory also can be found at unitedway-york.org.
Afterward, alliance member Matthew Richard, 18, a senior at Central York High School, said he didn't know government officials and community leaders knew as much as they did.
"They are more involved than I thought," he said.
Kayli Ashenfelter, a senior at Kennard-Dale High School in the South Eastern School District, said she was unaware of the 211 referral service, which she said would help "get the word out" and spread awareness about mental-health issues. She turns 18 this week.
"People shouldn't be scared to ask for help," she said.
Also serving on the panel were York County President Commissioner Susan Byrnes, District Attorney Tom Kearney, Coroner Pam Gay and senior government relations specialist Bev Mackereth of the Ridge Policy Group.
About the alliance: The York County Youth Mental Health Alliance was formed in April by school social workers, school counselors and school psychologists to give York County youth a voice on the issue, according to Kathy Minnich, one of the organizers. She is an elementary school social worker with Northeastern School District.
According to Minnich, there were 75 to 80 students who attended Monday's town-hall meeting, along with 35 to 40 adults associated with York County's school districts.
"You youth have created something amazing," she told students Monday. "The silence will end here."
"The silence ends here," or #TSEH, is the alliance's motto.
— Reach Liz Evans Scolforo at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.