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Together we can shatter the stigma!

Updated: Jul 19, 2023

When Zach died almost 6 painfully long years ago, it was stigma that played the starring role in his story.


Stigma - a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality or person.


Being ashamed or embarassed


Zach struggled silently for months because of stigma. Very few people reached out to him when he was struggling, because of stigma. We found it impossible to navigate the mental health system and find the appropriate resources because of stigma. In the end Zach was mis-diagnosed, on the wrong medication because of stigma. Zach took his life in a very manic moment, because of stigma.


While we can not change Zach’s story, we can change the story for the next kid in the corner. And that’s exactly what we are doing.


So how are we shattering stigma? We are going into schools, starting conversations, sharing best practices and building protective factors. Our foundational program is called the Penny Pledge. It is a three part, individual call to action that teaches youth the importance of reaching out to others, taking care of their own mental health and being a safe and caring person for others. We provide students with workbooks and reinforce what they learn and discover with discussions in class.


The first day of the program we focus on Zach’s story and where stigma played a role. I invite you to go to our website and watch the Zach’s Story Video under the “About Us” Tab to learn more. We spend a lot of time comparing and then normalizing mental health and physical health. Kids learn the importance of reaching out to others they know (Kids who are new, absent, struggling, showing changed behaviors etc) and even how to reach out and show kindness to strangers. That first night their homework assignment is to reach out to three people and then come back and share their experiences the next day. It is evident the next day that the impact of making someone else's day starts to resonate with the students and slowly the stigma begins to shatter.


The content on the second day is all about self care. Understanding that it’s okay to not be okay and a strength to ask for help. We talk about the fact that sad and bad days are a part of life. We are not supposed to be okay all the time. We work on building a self care plans for those sad and bad days. We talk about what we need when we have a cold. Soup, cough drops etc. Then we ask who likes tomato soup? Who likes chicken soup? Who doesn't like soup at all? Then the all important question. Who is right and who is wrong? And the collective cry is “nobody”. We start to build our self care plans with mindfulness techniques, safe adults in and out of school and identify our self love languages and those coping mechanisms we use for our sad and bad days. Some students share that art or music is their go to stress relievers, while others chime in with bike riding and soccer. The question is asked again – Who is right and who is wrong? And then the light bulbs start to go off. The homework that second night is to start a mental health conversation at home by telling someone what your self love language is and then finding out what theirs is. And then the stigma is shattered a little more.


The last day of the program focuses on what to do if someone comes to you and tells you they are feeling hopeless or that they want to harm themselves. When we ask if this has ever happened to anyone, typically at least 2 or more students raise their hands. None of them know what to do however. We start with the difference between tattling and advocating. Tattling is to get someone in trouble while advocating is to get someone help. We talk in depth about empathy and practice empathetic statements and most importantly we talk about the amazing resources such as teen lifeline and the new 988 (suicide hotline) number that are available 24/7.


At the end of the program, kids take the Penny Pledge. We call it the Penny Pledge because my son Zach was a coin collector and when he died we found thousands of pennies he had kept. Originally we put holes in them and wore them as a reminder to be as kind as he was, but since then the pennies have become the cornerstone and symbol of Kid in the Corner. One penny alone may not make a difference, but collectively they can shift behaviors, change the culture and shatter stigma. And hopefully the end result is that fewer and fewer kids will feel the result of stigma to the point of wanting to take their lives,


Kids are struggling and we know that youth talk to their peers before they talk to adults. That is why at Kid in the Corner we are strengthening the youth community itself by making each youth we touch a mental health resource for themselves and others.


AND IT’S WORKING! The video you just watched shows a small snippet of the impact we are having on youth all over the Valley. I want to take a moment to tell you a story about a child in a 6th grade class and how that class supported him. It was day 2 of programming and we were all sitting in a circle on the floor and sharing our experiences of reaching out to others the night before. I had spoken to this student the day before after class and he had told me about his severe anxiety about sharing out loud. When I got there that day, he handed me a note that he wanted me to read for him during sharing time and asked that he be allowed to leave the room while I read it.


When he came back in to the room the whole class applauded him. I was amazed and overwhelmed as I was watched a class of 6th graders show such heartfelt support, compassion and acceptance for a fellow classmate’s mental health challenges. The love, warmth and acceptance was overwhelming and I will never forget the feeling of stigma shattering all around me.


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