Yellow Ribbon Week shines light on mental wellness

Torrey Pines High School hosted another powerful Yellow Ribbon Week March 13-17, promoting mental health awareness and suicide prevention.

Teacher Katie Bayliss said she is proud to work in a school that has something like Yellow Ribbon Week, as suicide affected her personally when she lost her 13-year-old brother Ross to suicide when she was a senior in high school.

“He was the top student in his class and had many friends. These outside things are not a guarantee against suicide. My experience is evidence that suicide can reach anyone at any age and it is something that should be talked about openly. We need to share the resources and information that can help improve and save lives,” Bayliss said.

The week, coordinated by Peer Assisted Listeners adviser Don Collins, was a way to educate students about the importance of taking care of their mental health. Collins said research suggests one out of five teens suffer from a mental issue each year and it takes an average of eight to 10 years for the person to seek treatment.

“That’s a decade of unnecessary suffering with the problems probably getting worse, not better,” Collins said.

During the week there were two all-campus assemblies on “Ending the Silence” provided through the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) San Diego. Lana Lo, NAMI San Diego programs coordinator, said she was impressed that the students showed each other so much respect and that many found the courage to share their experiences and struggles with depression and anxiety in front of the whole gym.

“I think the idea that you ask for help if you need it is important for teenagers to keep hearing,” said junior Patricio May. “We all have a lot of stuff going on, and sometimes life can feel like a lot of pressure, so this week’s a good reminder you don’t know what other people are going through.”

The students also heard from 20-year-old Torrey Pines alum Jake Heilbrunn on the struggles with anxiety he faced in college, taking a leave of absence from school to focus his energy on travel, introspection and writing.

Responding to a senior who was unsure about what step to take after graduation, Heilbrunn said, “It’s OK to not have the answers yet. Continue your journey and trust your process. Our anxiety comes from listening more to our fears and doubts than to our faith and courage. Your inner voice knows the right choice.”

“Listening to Jake broadened my idea concept about what is quote unquote successful” said junior Jared Doan. “He showed a lot of courage in exploring and finding the value in the unknown and I got inspired to consider other futures for myself.”

Torrey Pines Peer Assisted Listeners (PALs) created one-minute PSA videos on suicide prevention and mental health awareness for the state-wide Directing Change competition. The videos were shared with teachers to show in class throughout the week and were also screened at the all-campus assemblies.

The campus was decorated with 300 yards of yellow ribbon and 800 yellow informational posters with resources, quotes and statistics. A student-created Snapchat geofilter and decorated selfie stations allowed students to take photos highlighting the message of “When texting emojis fail, words can prevail — Let’s talk about it!”

“I am not naïve. I know a yellow poster or a yellow ribbon is not going to save someone’s life, but an entire week devoted to raising awareness about the importance of taking care of our mental health and learning the warning signs to help our friends and family is something that can save a life,” Collins said. “I know too many parents and students who have lost a young adult to suicide and overdoses. The aftermath and sadness is brutal. If the work we do can encourage even just one person to reach out for help, it’s worth it.”

Brinn Belya, AP chemistry and engineering teacher, said one of his former students returned from Columbia University, where he said seven students have committed suicide in the first semester of this year and another two died from drug overdoses.

“Teachers and parents need to prepare high school students for the mental challenges of college, as well as the intellectual and academic challenges, so events like this Yellow Ribbon Week assembly is very much needed,” Belya said.

Throughout the week, the NAMI On Campus Mental Wellness Club hosted lunchtime activities for students and created a Wall of Hope composed of student comments about reasons to love life.

Junior Tavisha Thapar created the new Mental Wellness Club at school in September. As her mother is a psychologist and practicing therapist, Tavisha has always had an interest in mental health and wellness and wanted to create a place on campus for people to come learn and share about those “turbulent teenage emotions.”

“Part of the reason we struggle is because we don’t know much about mental health and how to start healing. I didn’t want there to be such a gap…I want the information to be well-known,” Tavisha said. “The issue of teenagers with depression and mental illness is very, very hidden. Nobody really talks about it, it’s very stigmatized. It’s difficult because people are uncomfortable talking about it, they change the subject or make a joke…Yellow Ribbon Week is very important to shed light and remind us mental health is something we do need to take care of and pay attention to.”

Tavisha, who would like to be a psychologist, is slated to give a talk on mental health and emotional wellness to students at Carmel Valley Middle School in June.

Collins said it’s important to remember that mental health and mental illness don’t happen in a vacuum. He said mental conditions are affected by genetics but they are also impacted by the surrounding environment. He said the students are fortunate to attend school in the San Dieguito Union High School District, whose board this month passed a resolution “in support of all students and declaring all schools a safe place.”

“We have a district goal of student wellness, and this resolution supports the conditions that create a feeling of connection and wellbeing,” Collins said. “We should feel very proud to live in a community that is encouraging and supporting the best for every one of our students to perform to their full potential.”

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