FARGO - Last month, a statewide survey from the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction revealed that mental health issues are on the rise for N.D. teens.
While the survey indicated positive things like the number of students who don't wear a seat belt, texted while driving or tried smoking is decreasing, some alarming statistics indicate that electronic bullying and depression among students is increasing. Similar survey results rang true for Minnesota students.
To combat the issue, Imagine Thriving is sponsoring a free showing of a documentary called "Not Alone" on Jan. 31 at the Fargo Theatre. Imagine Thriving is a mental health initiative founded by Stephanie Goetz in honor her brother Cam who took his life before he reached the age of 20.
Executive Director Abby Tow says the documentary, which was produced nationally by students for other students, explores mental health issues through the experiences of the teens featured.
After the screening, a panel of local individuals who have dealt with teen mental health will share their experiences before answering questions from the audience.
Tow is excited for people to see the documentary, though she cautions that some of the content are intense.
"Parts are hard to watch, so we'll announce to people that they can step out during the screening," she says, noting that three counselors will be available to provide support for anyone who feels emotional while viewing.
Despite the intensity, though, the documentary provides hope and a sense of healing.
"You feel good and hopeful at the end," Tow says.
Education is needed
While the screening on Jan. 31 is the premiere of the documentary locally, it won't be the only time the film is shown.
Thanks to a Microsoft grant, Imagine Thriving purchased the rights to screen the documentary 15 times, and the organization is currently scheduling screenings at schools throughout the Fargo-Moorhead community as well as rural school districts. The plan is to offer a community discussion opportunity each time the documentary is screened.
"Education - I can't stress that enough," Tow says about how to combat the stigma that often surrounds mental health issues. "Public health campaigns work ... what scares me is that the kids who know they are struggling are too ashamed and too proud to ask for help ... we have to make them believe that perfection is not real, and that struggle is a part of human existence but it doesn't have to kill them."
Tow says one of the most powerful aspects of the documentary is the variety of students featured as well as the range of issues they experienced.
"(The producers) did a good job of talking with students who are relatable," Tow says.
Fighting the stereotype
The understanding that students dealing with mental health issues don't always fit the misleading stereotype of a loner with no friends is crucial to changing the conversation.
Baylee McKay Engquist, an 18-year-old senior at Moorhead High School, will share her personal story of dealing with anxiety, depression and self-harm on the panel after the documentary is shown.
As an active student with great friends and a good home life, Engquist says she still struggled.
"I didn't have the right to feel sad," she says about how she felt at the time.
Her mother, Tracy Gruenhagen, will join her on the panel to talk about how her experience as a parent.
"I admit, I used to think much differently (about mental illness), too, until if affected my daughter," she says in an email.
Gruenhagen says a friend of Engquist reached out to her to share some concerns about Engquist, which led to diagnosis and treatment. Part of what has helped Engquist is sharing her story through her school's Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) chapter as well as Imagine Thriving.
"My hope would be that students aren't afraid to recognize when they are struggling," she says.
Engquist hopes having a parent and child on the panel will have a much greater impact for those in the audience.
"She didn't know where to turn," she says about her mom. "She had no idea where to go for help."
'We cannot ignore or pretend it doesn't exist'
Joining Engquist and her mother on the panel is Danelle Klaman, a student wellness facilitator at Horizon Middle School and Moorhead High School. (Klaman has counterparts in the West Fargo School District as well as the Fargo School District, which has six facilitators to serve students.)
Klaman sees students on a daily basis who struggle with mental health issues, but she's hopeful that engaging in more open conversations will help.
"There tends to be great stigma and difficulty, even shame when talking about mental well-being, and we believe it is imperative to have these discussions in order to help reduce this stigma and to ensure our young people know that there is help and support for the challenges they are facing," she says in an email. "Despite this being a difficult and sensitive topic, we cannot ignore or pretend it doesn't exist. The only way we are going to fully address mental health and bring about real change for those hurting, is to engage with one another, share those personal stories, and ensure that our youth know that they are not the only ones facing these challenges."
That's the recurring message Tow and the panelists emphasize about what attendees of the screening can expect to leave the event with.
"I'm hoping people will walk away with a different understanding of depression and anxiety, and know that anybody can go through it," Engquist says. "I hope they realize that how you deal with someone on a daily basis can affect them. You never know what they're going through."
Gruenhagen echoes that thought. "My biggest hope is that the conversation starts and the stigma that has surrounded mental illness for so long is broken down," she says.
Once that happens, Klaman says, those who are struggling alone may not have to any longer.
"This is happening everywhere," Tow says. "We're too strong of a community not to provide our kids with the resources they need to be well."
If You Go
What: "Not Alone" documentary screening and panel discussion
When: 7 p.m. on Jan. 31
Where: Fargo Theatre, 314 Broadway N.
Info: The documentary is 50 minutes long and will be followed by a panel discussion. Questions can be asked live or anonymously. The event is free and open to the public, though a donation of $10 is suggested. Watch the trailer for the film at not-alone.live/trailer.
What can you do?
Mental health issues affect many people and manifest in a variety of ways. According to the National Alliance of Mental Illness, 50 percent of lifetime mental illness cases begin by the age of 14 with 75 percent beginning by age 24. Early intervention is critical.
Here's what you can do if you see someone who may be struggling:
- Ask if they're okay, and then listen without judgment. Trust your gut and ask whether the person has thought about hurting him or herself. If you're an adult, connect the individual with resources to help. If you're a parent, get your child help. "It's the greatest gift you can give your child," Gruenhagen says. Teens should seek a trusted adult, or as Engquist advises, find the student's favorite teacher and tell that person. Tow says no students should take on the responsibility of caring for another person's mental health.
- If the person is in immediate danger, call 911. Dispatchers are trained to de-escalate a mental health crisis.
- Know other resources are available. In additional to organizations like Imagine Thriving as well as medical facilities trained to offer treatment, other options like help lines can offer those struggling with an immediate life line. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day and is available to anyone struggling, not just those with thoughts of self-harm, Tow says. The number is 1-800-273-8255. Sometimes, a person may not be ready to verbalize his or her struggles over the phone. In those cases, the Crisis Text Line is a free service available 24 hours day by texting 741741.
- Support initiatives or organizations that are trying to combat the issue. Imagine Thriving is only one organization in the community working to eliminate the stigma around mental health, so do your research if you'd like to support the work. On Giving Hearts Day on Feb. 8, anyone who donates $10 or more will receive a card to personalize with a message to a kid in the community who needs to hear that someone cares - even a stranger, Tow says.
For more information about teen mental health or additional events, visit www.imaginethriving.org/events/ or find Imagine Thriving on Facebook.