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Baraboo High School students aim to reduce stigma around mental health

December 21, 2018

Sierra Weiland and Katie Kargel are hoping bright yellow bandanas tied to students’ backpacks will help reduce the stigma surrounding mental health issues when they kick off the Bandana Project at Baraboo High School next semester.

“I’d say the most important aspect to us is just students feeling, like, OK in the school even if they are struggling with a deeper issue, that they feel welcomed and that nobody is judging them,” said Kargel, a BHS senior who turns 18 Friday.

The Bandana Project comes from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, started in 2016 by then-freshman Conlin Bass, according to the university. Students across campus tie lime-green bandanas to their backpacks to spread awareness of resources for people with mental illness and offer support to those who need it.

Over the summer, Weiland contacted Bass about how to bring the project to BHS. She’s visited downtown Madison since he started the project and said the majority of people she saw were sporting bandanas. At 16, Weiland is on track to graduate this spring, a year early.

Both she and Kargel have felt the effects of mental illness in their own lives, fueling their passion for the topic. Kargel said she has dealt with depression and anxiety, though she’s been able to manage it with the help of School Counselor Ann Renn and other resources. Weiland lost a family member to suicide.

When the two approached administrators about bringing the project to Baraboo, “we were so proud of them and so impressed,” Renn said, “because this is a big step for high school kids to do, No. 1. And No. 2, because they both do have some personal pieces of this that have affected their lives. To be vulnerable enough to come in front of their peers just says a lot about who they are as young people.”

After winter break, students at the high school will watch a video made by Weiland and Kargel explaining the project. Over the following days, the two will spend time before school and during lunch handing out bandanas. More will be available in student services after the initial kickoff.

Unlike Bass’ bandanas, however, Baraboo’s will be yellow. Kargel said they wanted to focus specifically on the issue of suicide, and yellow is the color for national suicide prevention.

Suicide was the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. in 2016, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. But among those aged 10-24, it was the second leading cause, accounting for more than 6,000 deaths.

Participants will receive cards with information on the national suicide prevention hotline and handouts on how to talk to people who come to them with mental health concerns, Kargel said. The goal is to show solidarity and support and help everyone feel like school is a safe space.

“I hope that it gets people to talk about their problems and wanting to get better and not feel scared about it,” Weiland said. “I just really want the stigma -- just a little bit of it -- just to go away and just feel OK to talk about things and not have to put on your fake face for everything.”

The project will continue through the rest of the school year. They ordered 220 bandanas, but Renn said she thinks they’ll need more. She’s expecting to see significant support from students.

Almost half of adolescents experience a mental disorder in their lifetime and about one in 10 experience severe impairment due to a mental disorder, according to the mental health institute.

Borrowing from Weiland’s phrasing, Renn said, “These kids that are putting on a fake face every day need to know that there’s other kids out there that -- that feel the same way they do and it’s OK to talk about it and it’s OK to reach out for help and look for those resources. So we do expect some real positive things to happen out of this.”

She noted that high schools need to support initiatives like this that change the conversation around mental illness.

For those who need help, Renn said they can find resources in student services or talk to school counselors. Teachers and administrators also will seek out resources for students if they don’t have them, she noted.

Kargel said she wants her fellow students to know: “You are not alone. I care about you, we care about you, and there’s so many others that also care about you and want you to get better.”

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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