At Voorheesville, a mission to stop the stigma of mental illness

 Voorheesville Central School District

The Enterprise — Sean Mulkerrin
A walk-in: Spanish teacher Isabel Kalin and students from Voorheesville walked out of their classrooms and streamed into the performing arts center for an event to honor those who were murdered at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Florida.

VOORHEESVILLE — The students who organized their school’s event on Wednesday to honor the victims of the Parkland shooting focused on the need to help one another and to overcome the stigma of mental illness.

They wanted to talk about their struggles because when an adult says, “You can always go get help,” it can become white noise. Hearing, “You can always go get help,” from a student can have an impact.

Talking to The Enterprise a few days before the event, three organizers — Eryn Payne, Alex Ruhren, and Hannah Levitt — were open about their battles with depression and the effect that is has on them, their families, and their friends.

Ruhren said that it can be difficult to talk to his parents about his depression, and that often the first people with whom he speaks are his best friends; he worries about worrying his parents. “Sometimes it’s a lot easier to talk to a teacher, because I can’t imagine my mom and dad sitting up and worrying if I am going to hurt myself.”

And, sometimes, parents just don’t understand.

Payne, a middle child, said that her parents were not sure if she was just looking for attention — but it wasn’t that. Payne had thought that she did not have someone to talk to, and felt that something was wrong with her. Coming to school, she said, she would be happier than being at home sometimes, because there are people in school who helped.

Payne admitted that she has done self-harm, and said that she has had people approach her and ask why she did it or ask her how she got better.

And she will explain.

“It takes time, it is not that it just goes away — it’s a feeling, it’s going to be there. And they say, ‘Well, medication doesn’t help everything.’ And I say, ‘I know; I am on it. It doesn’t change who you are,” Payne said. “You don’t have to kill yourself to kill the old you, because you can be someone who you want to be.”

The assembly

At 10 a.m. on Wednesday, March 14, as millions students were streaming out of schools across the country, students from Voorheesville were filing into the school’s performing arts center.

The students were part of the nationwide action that was meant to be both a memorial and a protest. The national walkout lasted for 17 minutes to honor the 17 who were murdered at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. The attendees of the Voorheesville event did not walk out of school — originally, a walkout had been planned, but was nixed by Laura Schmitz, the high school’s principal, due safety concerns.

“I think it is better that we are getting everybody together and not just having 17 minutes of silence because then maybe something will click,” Levitt told The Enterprise before Wednesday’s assembly.

The election of President Donald Trump has caused some of the same fractures in Voorheesville as have occured nationally. Payne told The Enterprise that some students are so anti-Trump, they will not stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.

The students of Voorheesville chose a memorial over a protest, and education and inclusivity over ostracization and silence.

“The point of the assembly is not to breed more contempt for the other side,” Ruhren said before Wednesday’s assembly. “There are a lot of people who are pro-gun and don’t think there needs to be change.” That’s why Ruhren and his fellow organizers made the event as apolitical as possible, choosing not to isolate anyone’s viewpoint.  

At the assembly, 17 students and teachers sat on the stage of the school’s performing arts center and read the biography of each Parkland victim as their picture scrolled on a screen in the background.

In her speech following the memorial, Levitt focused on mental health, a term with a broad definition and use.

Many of the mass shootings that have taken place in the past 25 years, she said, have been rooted in untreated or poorly treated mental illnesses.

Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, of the Columbine massacre, who murdered 12 students and one teacher in 1999, had mental-health issues; Harris has been described as a psychopath in the clinical sense of the word, and Klebold as dealing with depression. And Nikolas Cruz, accused in the Parkland shooting, had a history of disciplinary and mental health issues.

“The change … won’t come from more security cameras or arming teachers,” Levitt said. “Instead, kids should be given the help they need.” She then made an appeal to her fellow students, saying it is incumbent upon them to speak up if they know someone is having trouble.

Talking to The Enterprise before the assembly, Levitt pointed to the “Say Something” app that students can use to send secure and anonymous messages to the Voorheesville administration to help identify at-risk students before they hurt themselves or others. “Even though we are a small school district, we don't hear about everything that is going on,” she said.

The organizers of the event told The Enterprise that teachers as well as administrators are extremely receptive to students’ emotional needs.

The topic of mental health was front-and-center at the March 9 “Keeping our Kids Safe: Life after Parkland, FL” forum at the University at Albany, convened by Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy.

“The stigma that surrounds mental-health concerns needs to be addressed,” said panelist Dolores Cimini, the assistant director for prevention and program evaluation at the University at Albany’s counseling and psychological services.

Cimini said that, when students hear the term “mental-health concerns,” they are less likely to seek out treatment.

The organizers of the Voorheesville assembly are working from first-hand experience in their attempt to destigmatize those “mental-health concerns.”

More New Scotland News

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.