By Emily Schrader, Sophia Saidi and Paloma Delgado
Photo taken by Nico Gonzalez, edited by Julia Mencher
On Monday, November 27th, social media feeds were flooded with red hearts honoring the death of JoJo Greenberg, a junior at Walt Whitman High School who took her own life that day. Less than a week later, those same hearts could be seen covering social media once again, this time colored green instead of red, to honor the life of Walter Johnson junior Tommy Silva, which had also ended in suicide.
The deaths of these two students were a serious reminder of the mental health issues which many adolescents deal with every single day, problems too often overlooked. The stories of these two students, and many others like them, reveal the importance of addressing mental health. Sometimes it takes a tragedy to spark a conversation.
Mental health is not an easy topic to discuss. Issues such as depression, anxiety, and suicide are all serious, and often upsetting, subjects to talk about. Because of much of the stigma that surrounds mental health, it’s rarely a topic of discussion at all.
According to Rachel Larkin, director of crisis prevention and intervention at EveryMind, a mental health and wellness center, just as physical health issues require time and the proper treatment, so do mental health issues. Larkin works to oversee the Montgomery County Hotline, as well as suicide prevention lifelines.
“If you have diabetes, you wouldn’t say ‘Oh, I can force my body to make my pancreas work, right?’” Larkin said. Mental health issues such as anxiety and depression can require therapy and medication, and do not necessarily have a cure.
Getting the proper treatment for mental health issues is not always easy, especially for teenagers who may feel like they have lost control over their own lives. Those with anxiety or depression often feel as if they need to deal with their mental wellness issues on their own, which Larkin explains is simply not the right approach.
“You just don’t power through it on your own,” said Larkin. “That’s what we expect people struggling with mental health to do. We expect them to power through it on their own, and it’s not fair and it’s not right.”
And compared to the general reluctance to discuss depression, the topic of suicide seems almost unmentionable.
“People are afraid to talk about [suicide],” Larkin said. “They’re afraid that if we bring it up, it’ll give people the idea and then they’ll go do it, and it doesn’t really work like that.”
Instead, beginning a conversation is an important step in understanding and addressing mental health.
“Any time anybody loses their life to suicide it’s heartbreaking, especially when a young person does because it’s often such an impulsive act,” Larkin said. “What we have learned through working with suicidal people over the years is a lot of times, when people take their lives or attempt to take their lives, they don’t actually want to die, but they want the pain that they’re feeling to end, and they can’t find any other way to do it.”
In order to prevent these tragedies from occurring in the future, it is necessary to reach students before they make this decision. For that to happen, students dealing with mental illnesses must feel comfortable opening up and talking about what they are going through.
One resource available to all MCPS students are school psychologists, experts trained to diagnose and treat disorders, help manage student behavior, and design safe learning environments.
Though both school psychologists and school counselors work to deliver support services to students, school
psychologists are more likely to have training in specific behavioral analysis and research methods.
“My specific role at this time when learning about a student with mental health issues is to ensure that there is a team approach to support the student in need,” Ms. Lindenfeld, B-CC’s resident school psychologist, said.
Lindenfeld not only provides support for those that are currently experiencing distress, but also offers resources to help students develop “mental well-being” so that they do not suffer from mental stressors in the future.
While professional support is crucial, breaking the stigma that surrounds mental health begins within the community of students. Student-based wellness clubs, such as Sources of Strength, provide a community of support, and work to promote conversation about mental health issues among students.
“We organize campaigns, basically each month we focus on each source of strength that’s on the wheel,” said Danielle Rockman, a junior at B-CC and a student leader of Sources of Strength. “We… step outside of school and apply these sources of strength to our real lives. That way we’re able to understand how each source affects our life and how we can use it when we’re going through a tough time, or we’re stressed out.”
Although the focus of Sources of Strength is not exclusively mental health, it is an issue the club works hard to combat. In the past, the club has held a number of open discussions about mental health. The purpose of these discussions
are to make students feel more comfortable about their own mental illnesses, and help those who do not suffer from a mental illness understand the importance of the issue.
In response to the two most recent cases of suicide, Sources of Strength has started the What Helps Me campaign. The goal of the campaign is to remind students of how to stay positive and deal with any challenges they may be facing. “We had students fill out little slips of paper talking about what they did to help them during hard times, whether they were stressed, depressed, upset, going through whatever, and basically that was a good way to reflect and realize when they’re upset they can do this to make themselves feel better,” Rockman said. “When we put them all together in the school on display, all these methods that students use to help them get through tough times is a really positive reminder.”
Justin Chen, a sophomore at Whitman High School and former friend of JoJo, was devastated by the recent events. Much like Larkin, he believes that in order for mental health to be addressed effectively, there needs to be more of an understanding surrounding such topics.
However, depression and suicidal tendencies are not always recognizable. According to Chen, in JoJo’s case, “it wasn’t because she didn’t have any friends or was mistreated at home, it was her brain that was different than most people’s. It made her feel alone and feel like people were ignoring her.”
“You don’t know how much somebody’s suffering, because on the outside they might be beautiful and smart and have everything they might want, but that doesn’t mean they’re not in pain,” said Larkin.
“JoJo was a presence in the school,” Danielle Hazan, a student government leader and junior at Whitman High School, said. “Many people knew her and cared about her.”
Hazan said that mental health has been addressed at Whitman with charity fundraisers and assemblies, explaining that they have a school wide event known as “Whitman Idol,” in which funds were donated to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Students have also taken action outside of school to address the death of their classmate and peer. Some students have taken to social media posting photos, videos, and kind words in remembrance of her life.
The week following Jojo’s death, the school held a vigil in her honor, which much of the student body attended.
“Although it was a tough week with lots of sadness, many people rallied together and were really there to support each other,” Hazan said.
Despite the response of school administrations to the tragedies, however, many students and community members believe that it could do more to combat mental health issues, and to commemorate the lives lost.
“The administration isn’t doing as much as they could be do increase support for those struggling with mental health issues,” said Sarah Kimmel, a sophomore at Walter Johnson High School. “From what I can tell, there is a lot of fear over a contagion effect and that’s why they aren’t responding very strongly. I think they are going to do more soon hopefully.”
Kimmel decided to take matters into her own hands, and created a video addressing mental health which circulated around social media titled “We Are #WjStrong.” The video showcases the voices of students discussing their personal experiences struggling with mental health issues including anxiety, depression, addiction, insomnia, OCD, and many others.
Beyond clinically diagnosed mental disorders, the high-pressure academic environment of this community may contribute to mental health issues among high school students, Kimmel said.
“We need to focus on mental health and physical health more than grades and successes,” Kimmel said. “Because when it seems like no one cares how you feel, [academic stressors] can really push you over the edge.”
In the aftermath of such tragedies, and despite the harsh stigma that surrounds it, mental health must be given the same level of care and attention that is given to any other type of health issue.
“Everyday, we know that we’re supposed to drink water and we’re supposed to exercise and that we’re supposed to eat right, take care of ourselves. And we also know that when we don’t do that or we get sick, we reach out for help,” Larkin said. “Mental wellness should be the same way. We should think about the things that we need to do to take care of ourselves on a mental basis each day. We need to strengthen our bodies through good problem solving and good coping skills, just like we would do for exercise.”