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Wisconsin students organize mental health festival

October 1, 2018
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In this Friday, Sept. 21, 2018 photo, Adam Hietpas, a senior at Little Chute High School, hands out gift bags during Little Chute's mental health wellness fair in Little Chute, Wis. (Danny Damiani/The Post-Crescent via AP)

LITTLE CHUTE, Wis. (AP) — Looking up at rows of bleachers packed with more than 600 Little Chute students, sophomore Keaton Duffe gripped a microphone on the football field. A bounce house flapped in the wind behind him.

He told them his purpose for bringing them there was to “erase the stigma of mental health being something we don’t talk about, because it’s something we do need to talk about, because it’s so important,” Duffe said.

The audience was quiet.

“That’s it,” Duffe said.

Students clapped and hollered their support, and soon filed onto the track to visit tables of resources related to mental wellness.

It was the school’s first Student Mental Health Wellness Festival, an event organized by Duffe and two other students in partnership with Prevent Suicide Fox Cities. Organizers hope the idea spreads to other schools as a way to encourage students to talk about mental health, find resources and recognize adults who can support them.

The idea grew out of a student project. Duffe and fellow sophomores Amidala Czaja and Montannah Weiss read the book, “All the Bright Places,” which tells the story of a teenager who dies by suicide. Weiss reached out to Prevent Suicide Fox Cities to do a presentation for their class as part of their project. They were all surprised by how well their classmates listened.

“We realized that people actually cared about it, like actually paid attention,” Czaja told the Appleton Post-Crescent . “The room was totally silent for like 45 minutes and that never happens with our class.”

The three students decided they wanted to do more. Weiss was especially excited about the potential to change the school’s culture. She had felt unable to talk about her own mental health challenges in the past.

“I went through a long stage of depression and I myself struggled with suicide for a long time,” Weiss said. “I felt absolutely alone and I didn’t really have friends at that point because there was nobody I really trusted.”

Over their summer breaks, the students met weekly with Cindy Reffke, the chair of Prevent Suicide Fox Cities to plan the school-wide event. They took the quiet subject of mental health, often only discussed in the context of tragedy, and decided to make it a celebration of sharing and strength.

“I hope this event shows that everybody should be here for each other and there’s always going to be people you can go to,” Weiss said.

The event started with a feast of donated food as school staff and event organizers talked to the students about the importance of finding people and activities that help them feel resilient during difficult times.

“There’s a history of mental illness in my family. There’s some different things I struggle with on a daily basis,” Little Chute Principal Tony Bird told the students. “We’ve all had our own issues in our life. We’ve learned to be resilient and that’s something we need to practice and get better at.”

Kevin Pratt, a school counselor, told the students: “You have countless adults here who care about you.”

Reffke added: “We love and care about you.”

The event is just one of many times Little Chute students will be talking about mental health this year. The school is joining nine other schools in the region using Sources of Strength, a national program that helps students build relationships with trusted adults and launch their own mental wellness campaigns.

Staff at the school have already been trained in SOS, and students will be trained next. The program has spread quickly in northeast Wisconsin due to coordination and funding from the Northeast Wisconsin Mental Health Connection, a collaboration of local health systems, school districts and other organizations.

After the presentation, students walked around the track to pick up information and talk with representatives from a range of organizations.

“It’s helpful to know there are people out there to help,” said Elizabeth Lehrer, a senior. “It gives us hope. It really does.”

There were counseling centers, local nonprofits, an equine therapy provider with a mini horse, and ranch owner Sally Schmidt, who had several alpacas available for petting.

“We’re just here to make you smile,” Schmidt said.

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Information from: Post-Crescent Media, http://www.postcrescent.com

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