CINCINNATI -- Mental health is a subject many teens are uncomfortable discussing with their friends. A group of students at McAuley High School set out to erase the stigma around mental health by creating the Fearless Initiative.
Touted not as a club but as a school-wide movement, the Fearless Initiative aims to bring awareness to mental health issues and bring students together as a supportive community.
The students leading the initiative at the all-girls Catholic school in College Hill wanted to help their classmates empower and embrace each other. Surveys help the group to focus efforts on monthly topics that are relevant to the students, such as suicide prevention, body image, substance abuse, anxiety, depression and family relationships, said Sarah English, the school psychologist who oversees the initiative.
“About 20 percent of kids on a national level experience mental health issues severe enough to warrant treatment, but only one-third are receiving help," English said. "What happens to the other two-thirds?"
As part of the Fearless Initiative, students have tried to spread positivity to the whole school by writing body-positive messages on the school’s bathroom mirrors, plastering encouraging Post-It notes on each student’s locker, playing uplifting music at lunch and inviting speakers to share their stories at an all-school assembly. At monthly meetings, participants can share their personal stories in a safe space, learn how to best support a friend who may be struggling or watch meaningful movies that provoke discussion.
“We wanted to create a community where everything you are is accepted and loved, where you can be fearless and live your best life and be your best self,” said Katie Bergmann, a senior at McAuley who helped launch the initiative.
In 2013, English was doing a lot of counseling on a variety of mental health issues, but she saw a need to do something proactive to further aid her students. At the same time, Bergmann, then a sophomore, had experienced her own personal struggles with depression and anxiety. She felt passionate about sharing with her fellow classmates what that struggle was like, and she wanted to open the door for others to talk about their own challenges.
“Statistics show that so many people are struggling, but because of the stigma, people aren’t talking about it," Bergmann said. “So, it seems like it’s not important until you create this environment where people can come and be open. Then things just come flooding out."
Although the group discusses serious topics, they also try to cultivate human connections through supportive friendships.
“It’s not only rewriting your internal monologue and rewiring your brain in self-love, but being a person that can do that in somebody else’s story," Bergmann said.
Like Bergmann, fellow McAuley seniors Abby Ewald and Brittany Wells were passionate about taking leadership roles in the Fearless Initiative.
“I was able to share my story at a meeting. We use the phrase ‘own your story.’ I was really able to take ownership and begin to conquer what I was going through because I was no longer ashamed of it," Wells said. “It is not until we can understand and acknowledge our pain that we can begin to overcome it."
More than 50 students attended the first meeting of this school year, and others have expressed interest in participating.
“We have had such huge growth over the years," Ewald said. “The support has been amazing. It is a school-wide initiative, which is the coolest thing about it. It’s not a club. It is a movement and a feeling throughout the school."
English hopes to get another year or two of experience under her belt to better determine what works and what doesn’t, and then she wants to expand the program to other all-girl Catholic schools. McAuley’s sister school, Mother of Mercy High School, launched the program this school year based on McAuley’s model, English said.
Learn more this week
Beth Nowak, founder of ThatConversation.com , a multimedia tool that helps parents and teens address difficult topics, will speak at McAuley High School to parents this week. Parents from all area high schools are invited to attend the free event at 7 p.m. Sept. 14 in McAuley’s Auditorium, 6000 Oakwood Ave., Cincinnati.
McAuley senior and Fearless Initiative leader Katie Bergmann will speak at the school’s annual Women Who Inspire event along with five other inspirational speakers Oct. 20. Click here for tickets and details.