Westmoreland high schoolers discuss mental health issues at ‘Slam the Stigma’ event
Test scores, social media and other pressures seem to be weighing on the minds of Westmoreland County high schoolers.
Students at a few districts are doing something about it and they hope others will follow in their footsteps by creating clubs that address mental health and wellness inside school walls.
“You may think that a lot of people aren’t going to join … but that’s part of slamming the stigma, creating an environment where students can sign up for that,” said Austin Kellar, a senior at Norwin High School.
About 150 students, administrators and faculty from area school districts and a charter school, gathered Tuesday at the Westmoreland Intermediate Unit to brainstorm ideas on how to create a positive environment in their buildings and improve mental wellness. The gathering, “Slam the Stigma,” was part of the STEP UP Westmoreland initiative, a partnership that connects county students with mental health resources.
“It’s just a way to start the conversation in Westmoreland County,” said Kyra Matachak, school psychologist at the intermediate unit and coordinator of STEP UP Westmoreland.
The 2017 Pennsylvania Youth Survey showed that 33.5% of Westmoreland County students in grades 6, 8, 10 and 12 who were surveyed indicated they felt sad most days during the past year. Statewide, that number was 38%, according to the survey administered by state agencies.
About 15% of county students surveyed indicated they contemplated suicide, just under the state average of 16%.
Mental health-related issues were among the top six reasons a report was made for a school under the Westmoreland Intermediate Unit umbrella during the past year to Pennsylvania’s Safe2Say Something 24-hour tipline, according to an annual report. There were 108 reports of cutting or self-harm, 94 reports of suicide or thoughts of suicide and 76 reports about depression/anxiety.
Students from Greater Latrobe, Norwin and Hempfield Area high schools shared their experiences starting and running clubs that work to connect their peers with existing mental health supports. The students promote positivity in their buildings and offer a listening ear to someone who might be having a problem.
Seniors Mackenzie Crispin, Jolene Mazur and Ethan Kammerer and sophomore Kyilee Gazdag are officers in the school’s Aevidum club.
“Aevidum is a club that helps to reduce the stigma that surrounds mental health and it helps to create a more positive atmosphere in the school,” Mazur said.
Aevidum is a nonprofit group created at a Pennsylvania school after a student there committed suicide in 2003.
During the last couple years, their peers have learned who club members are and become more open to discussing a struggle or mental health issue. Mazur said club members can listen and then refer the student to a counselor for help.
Addee Rosner, a senior, encouraged fellow students to take charge and start a club at their own school. Rosner, Kellar and senior Matt Federovich discussed how they started their Aevidum club, challenges they faced and how they introduced the new group to the student body.
“It’s really crucial to take the time to create a program that is good for your school,” Kellar said.
They rely a lot on social media to get the word out and plan to create a positive environment with a “gratitude challenge” this fall.
Katelyn Johnson, a senior, started the school’s Active Minds group to help other students after going through her own challenges. Active Minds is a nonprofit started after the brother of a Pennsylvania college student committed suicide in 2000.
“The goal of the club is to not be therapists,” senior Dunovan Cook said. “Our goal is to kind of be the middle person to help these people find the resources they need.”
Cook and Johnson are joined in leading the club by fellow seniors Ben Graham and Jared Rivard. They agreed that available mental health resources are not always well-known among students.
“I didn’t know that I had these great counselors that were available to talk to me,” Rivard said.
Renatta Signorini is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Renatta at 724-837-5374, [email protected] or via Twitter .