by LAURA HAYES
While many students may have spent their days off hanging out with friends or catching up on rest, 14 area high school and middle school students used their free day to gather at Winona Senior High School (WSHS) to discuss mental health, suicide prevention, and what they can do to help.
The five-hour workshop was sponsored by Solomon’s Song — a local nonprofit founded by Mohamed Elhindi and Carol Daul-Elhindi after they lost their 14-year-old son, Solomon, to suicide. An athlete, Solomon tried nearly every sport team available and was actively involved in school life, including student council, drama club, chess club; he was an avid filmmaker, writer, and reader. His death inspired his parents to start “Solomon’s Song,” which is dedicated to raising mental health awareness, celebrating diversity, and promoting healthy minds and bodies.
According to Carol, one of the main goals when they started Solomon’s Song was to bring mental health training into the schools to help bring awareness and provide tools for students to help one another. Looking around, Carol and Mohamed discovered Youth MOVE (Motivating Others through Voices of Experience) Minnesota — a program with the goal of uniting youth voices to raise awareness of youth mental health disorders, overseen by the Minnesota Association for Children’s Mental Health (MACMH).
“You’re awesome,” Carol told the students. “You came out here and you want to learn more about mental health and you want to learn how to be a good friend to people struggling with mental health conditions, and I think that’s really cool. You have an opportunity to help change the culture in your schools.”
While each of the students had different specific reasons for wanting attend the workshop, many wanted to learn more about mental health and how to support loved ones who are struggling. WSHS senior Emily Perkins was one of the students to participate in the Youth MOVE training. “I had a close friend struggle with mental health, and I wanted to learn how to be a better friend,” she said.
Youth MOVE project coordinator Sasha Fursman has been working with MACMH since she was in high school. Now a freshman in college, she created the Youth MOVE training. She explained that some schools have little to no mental health training for their students. “Breaking the stigma is important so that people can get help just like they would for a physical disorder,” she said.
She wanted students to learn that they’re not alone. “It’s not a dead-end road. We need to care about everybody,” Fursman said.
When asked what first came to their minds when they heard “mental health,” the students responded with words like “taboo,” “not the same for everyone,” or illnesses such as anxiety or depression. Fursman explained that a lot of people immediately associate the words “mental health” with mental illness or disorders. “[Mental health is] something we all have. We all have physical health and we all have mental health. It’s not going to go away. You have to take care of it,” she said.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in five adults experiences a mental illness in a given year, and one in five youth ages 13-18 experience a severe mental disorder at some point during their life. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for people aged 10-24.
Fursman added that some of these numbers may be higher in reality due to unreported cases. Because of the negative stigma, Fursman told the students that people make assumptions on who a person is based on a disorder.
When it’s talked about, you’re told to just get over it, WSHS senior James Queen said. Perkins added that it’s hard to talk about mental health during class because students may be at different places — some may understand it from personal struggles while others may not have experienced it.
“Mental health disorders are not adjectives,” Fursman said. She explained that people say that they’re feeling "OCD" (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) when they may want to be organized or "bipolar" when they have a mood change. “You’re discrediting the disorder,” she said.
She broke down several common mental illnesses such as OCD, bipolar, depression, and schizophrenia, explaining some common symptoms of the diseases.
As part of the training, the students learned how to actively listen to one another versus giving advice, which, at times, may not be desired. Perkins said that she liked that portion of the training. “You don’t understand the situation,” she added.
What characteristics do you like in a supportive friend? Fursman asked. “I like someone with a calm voice,” she said. Someone who genuinely listens, one student said. Someone who doesn’t discredit you, another added. “Someone who looks like they care and not that their mind is wandering, because you can see it when their mind is wandering,” a third student said.
Fursman offered some ways for students to stay mentally healthy such as getting vitamin D, exercise, aromatherapy, or recording thoughts throughout the day. She advised that it was OK to say no to things to avoid becoming overwhelmed.
Part of Youth MOVE’s work is starting a local chapter for students in the schools. Carol explained that having this group available would help create a culture of empathy and understanding at the schools surrounding mental illness. “[For students], it’s good to have someone they can reach out to. It’s often hard for kids to reach out to adults,” she added.
In the future, Carol and Mohamed plan on offering more mental health training both for educators and parents. “I think we need to have more conversations like this,” Perkins said.