Chapel Hill: Opinion

Rock, Royals and Schools – Community mental health awareness

What do Lady Gaga, England’s royal princes, and Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools have in common?

All assert that mental illness is treatable, not shameful.

With most mental disorders starting by age 18, schools are an essential component in recognizing and treating mental illness. Throughout May – National Mental Health Awareness month – and especially on National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day (May 4), several local schools will recognize the importance of child and youth mental health.

Some will deck their halls in green, symbolizing the new growth and beginnings that education, hope and treatment offer people with mental illness. Last year’s events at Frank Porter Graham (FPG) Bilingüe Elementary included hallway decorations, morning announcements of mental health facts, and a school-wide informational assembly, at which guidance counselor Barbie Garayua Tudryn told students mental illnesses are the same as physical illnesses.

“Sometimes your brain doesn’t feel too good,” she said, explaining that if you are sad, worried, nervous, and angry “a lot … these are signs that your brain might need a little help, just like you need a little help when you have a cold.”

Conversations at FPG are ongoing; “promoting a culture of mental health awareness is a year-round priority,” says social worker Kerry Sherrill. “We want kids to feel comfortable talking about mental health.”

But talk is not enough. According to Kendra Suggs-Shealey, M.Ed., a school system behavior specialist, CCHCS also helps students with mental health challenges via multiple initiatives, including Mental Health Community Connections (MHCC), Carolina Outreach, BEST program, Art Therapy Institute, Phoenix Academy, Mental Health First Aid (complimentary to employees), and the Family Resource Center at Culbreth.

Stefanie Mazva-Cohen of Culbreth Middle School championed the recently opened Family Resource Center. Its inviting living room-like atmosphere beckons families from Culbreth, and its feeder elementaries (Glenwood, FPG, Scroggs), to sink into a sofa, enjoy a cup of coffee, and peruse the lending library of over 300 vetted books covering a range of topics, that include divorce, depression, grief and loss, self-hurting, academic support, etc.

MHCC – A unique collaboration

Seeded after Faith Connections on Mental Illness’s 2015 conference on Youth and Mental Health, MHCC is a collaboration between school system and community and consists of parents, students, community agencies, school board representation, and CHCCS staff. The group aims to “connect school and community partners to promote a collaborative climate that supports mental wellness practices.”

Student leadership

Student advocates at one local high school are an inspiration to MHCC adults. The students hope to receive guidance and support from school administrators to start a club that promotes mental health education for teachers and students to break the silence and stigma enveloping mental illness. They urge incorporating mental health concerns into orientation materials and other venues discussing rules and guidelines. “We are warned about drugs, cheating, weapons, and inappropriate behavior, actions that can be a product of mental health issues. We need guidance on what to do if we are concerned about a mental health situation or a friend.”

A community effort

How can individuals, businesses, and organizations translate interest into action? Don’t be shy about discussing mental health! Share your story. Visit the websites of organizations like the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) or Faith Connections on Mental Illness (interfaith community group), both of which are fielding teams for NAMIWalks on Saturday, May 6. Take your child to the library at 4 pm Friday, May 5 to see the Pixar movie “Inside Out.”

As Joanna Bowen, president of NAMI Orange reminds us, “It is important to talk to children early and often to help them form positive attitudes about mental health and wellness that will last a lifetime.”

Kim McCahan Batson, webmaster for Faith Connections on Mental Illness ( and captain of the NAMIWalks team, lives in Chapel Hill. Contact her at