Updated: Aug 27
BY KAYLA VENGER
If I was told in March that all my summer plans would be overturned, I would not have believed you.
At the time, no one could have predicted the magnitude of the pandemic, nor its longevity. Naively, I believed that by the end of spring the coronavirus would be under control, and life would resume as normal. Little did I know how wrong those predictions would turn out to be.
I had envisioned a post-pandemic summer of travel and exploration, and that vision kept me going during the highly tumultuous academic transition from the classroom to a virtual platform. As time progressed, however, and the chances of partaking in those activities proved slimmer and slimmer, my morale plunged significantly, and I spiraled into a funk of confusion, uncertainty, and disillusionment. I ended up spending much of my summer frantically searching for programs and activities that would keep me occupied and feeling satisfactorily productive. Everything I had tried, from Israel programs to music camps, was either cancelled or unavailable, and I was left feeling discouraged and frustrated.
Thankfully, I discovered Project Proactive’s Teen Leadership Development Program. I was overjoyed to say the least - this was exactly what I had been searching for and more.
As the daughter of a licensed clinical social worker, I have always valued the importance of mental health, and have always considered a career in psychology. This program seemed like the perfect fit, and I was more than ecstatic to be involved.
An element of the program that I particularly appreciated was the “group project” in which participating teens were divided into three separate teams and tasked to create a project of choice related to mental health that would fill a need in the community. Since I felt that I had a solid foundation of knowledge in mental health and mental illness, this aspect of the program was a great opportunity for me to enhance my leadership and collaboration skills.
Over the short span of those two weeks, I developed tremendously as both a leader and mental health advocate, and also learned much about myself along the way. I learned that when I am truly passionate about a cause, I can be much more productive than I may have initially deemed myself to be. I learned that the process of creation involves deep attention to detail, and an ability to view any given situation from all angles and perspectives. I learned that it is important to be ambitious, but to also be able to accept the limitation of certain endeavors. Most importantly, I learned that not everyone thinks the same way I do or carries the same values.
This realization entirely shifted my approach to mental health education and why I believe the normalization of mental health is more critical than ever.
I realized through this experience that although I have a solid background in mental health education and think it’s critical to be proactive in prevention, many, if not most people, do not think this way.
So while I did receive a more detailed education of mental health and the specific challenges many face on a daily basis, the greatest learning experience for me was realizing that most people do not consider or perceive mental health as vital to their overall wellbeing. Some may understand its significance, yet fall short of proper emotional care. Some don’t believe mental health applies to their lives, as to them, the distinction between mental health and mental illness is imperceptible. Some suffer emotionally in silence, and dismiss the significance of mental health out of shame or fear.
As I learned these things, I began to understand why I was truly drawn to Project Project and to the cause of mental health awareness. I realized that the root of my interest in this program was not merely to expand my own knowledge, but to spread this understanding, to help others recognize the integral role mental health plays in each of our lives. I learned the importance of normalizing the mental health conversation, and how awareness and education play vital roles in achieving just that.
Why is normalization so necessary?
Unfortunately, there is a lot of shame associated with mental health and illness, and such stigma oftentimes inhibits those suffering from seeking proper care and assistance. The reluctance to accept help only exacerbates those obstacles, and can potentially result in debilitating or even life-threatening situations. The barriers surrounding the subject of mental health need to be lifted to not only make resources more accessible, but to encourage those struggling to seek and accept aid when they need it.
Ultimately, each one of us has mental health, just as we have physical health. We nurture our bodies by remaining physically active and monitoring the food we choose to ingest. We schedule annual appointments with medical professionals to ensure our bodies are being properly cared for. One would not hesitate to call the doctor for a broken leg, yet would feel reluctant to contact someone when having an emotional breakdown.
When did human emotional experiences become "crazy"? And why are emotional disorders met with such heavy judgement in our society?
These are the questions we need to be asking ourselves and those around us.
We must understand that the emotional struggles each one of us face are not faced alone, and that billions of human beings before us and around us endured and are enduring similar experiences. We need to acknowledge and treat our minds with the same care and concern as we do our bodies, and understand how the mind and body intertwine and connect.
We need to realize that truthfully, whether or not we are conscious of it, each one of us struggles with mental health from time to time, and that is okay, that is human.
Why is normalization particularly necessary today?
There is no question that the current circumstances have caused a pervasive decrease in emotional wellness. Widespread unemployment, lack of social interaction, loss of loved ones to the virus, and general uncertainty has heightened rates of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and suicide. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, a third of Americans indicate symptoms of clinical anxiety and depression. These rates have risen among nearly every age group, but are particularly common among adolescents and young adults.
The increasing prevalence of anxiety and suicide among young adults is not merely a result of the pandemic, however, as it has grown exponentially in the last few years - in fact, the pandemic has actually helped normalize mental illness, making support more accessible than ever.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide was the second leading cause of death for Americans aged 15 to 24 in 2017. Research from John Hopkins University discovered that the percentage of adolescents that reported major depression increased from 8.7% in 2005 to 11.3% in 2014. The advent and widespread usage of technology and social media has likely contributed to these figures, in addition to a tumultuous social and political climate. The pandemic has only exacerbated these numbers on the books, since many people were suffering in silence when prior studies were conducted . Now, more than ever, we are aware that people are in dire need of emotional assistance, but many are still not comfortable reaching out to a specialist or even a friend.
Normalizing the conversation of mental health will encourage those who may be struggling emotionally more than ever to seek help, and in doing so, feel supported, not judged.
Finally, how do we, as a community normalize mental health?
STEP #1 Any positive change must be internal. We need to truly view mental health as synonymous to physical health in regards to well being. The brain is just another organ that needs to be checked and tended to when it's not functioning at optimal levels. Once this perspective is ingrained in the brain, the care and concern afforded to the body will be shared with the mind and soul.
STEP #2 Educate yourself and those around you. Have honest and open conversations about mental wellbeing with your friends and contemporaries in an effort to ease tensions and taboos surrounding mental health within your own communities. Educate yourself. Utilize the internet and its endless well of information to glean knowledge about certain mental illnesses and disorders, and gain access to thousands of mental health resources for educational purposes and in times of need.
STEP #3 Actively spread awareness beyond your own social circles. This can be an exhaustive and at times scary endeavor. Project Proactive, however, allowed each teen to take this step with ease and confidence, providing us with the knowledge and understanding necessary to create a project that would have a truly meaningful global impact. They urged us to think deeply about what our ultimate objectives were, and how we felt those goals could be practically carried out. They encouraged us to be creative with our work, and learn which methods were most effective in resonating with our audiences.
Project Proactive understands the vital importance of normalization, and equipped us with the proper tools to promote necessary conversations of mental health in communities across the globe.
So while I entered this leadership program thinking I would merely expand my knowledge of mental health, I left with much more than that. I left with a deeply rooted passion for mental health awareness, and a mission to actively work to normalize the mental health conversation through advocacy and education.
I implore everyone, whether or not they consider themselves particularly interested in the subject, to explore the world of mental health, through research or involvement in organizations like Project Proactive, and have those honest conversations with themselves and those around them. I am excited to continue my involvement as a Proactive Ambassador, encouraging those vital conversations.
Question why you may feel hesitant to openly discuss mental health, and challenge that reluctance.
The process is sure to not only grant you a greater understanding of the struggles many face around you, but uncover similar challenges within yourself that have been dismissively brushed under the rug. The more comfortable we feel discussing mental health, the more comfortable those around us will feel, too.
Together, through awareness and education, we can work toward the normalization of mental health and emotional wellness in our society, and in turn improve and save millions of lives, including our own.
My name is Kayla Venger and I am an incoming high school junior from San Diego, California. This past summer I participated in Project Proactive’s Teen Leadership Development Program and look forward to continuing my journey of mental health advocacy as a Proactive Ambassador.