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Student-athletes kick off effort to raise awareness of mental health

By SHAWNE K. WICKHAM
New Hampshire Union Leader

September 17. 2018 9:28PM
Former New Hampshire Supreme Court Chief Justice John Broderick, left, speaks with Nashua student athletes Andrew Penkala, Kendall Bush and Tanner Plourde about the REACT campaign Monday at the State House. (Shawne K. Wickham/Sunday News)



CONCORD — Some pretty important people — the governor, a former Supreme Court justice and a hospital CEO, to name a few — were at the State House for Monday’s official unveiling of a poster campaign to raise awareness of mental health in the schools.

But it was the students who stole the show.

R.E.A.C.T. is a partnership among Dartmouth-Hitchcock, the state Department of Education and the New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association (NHIAA). It aims to encourage students who are dealing with emotional suffering and mental illness to get the help they need.

Posters will feature local student-athletes with the message: “You’re never alone when you have the whole team behind you.” They encourage students to recognize the signs of emotional suffering in others, express concern and take action.

The first poster features members of the Athletic Leadership Council (ALC) at Nashua South High School, and four of those students were on hand Monday to explain what they hope to accomplish.

Kendall Bush, president of the ALC, called this “a pivotal moment” for her city, state and nation. “We need to be more compassionate and understanding,” she said. “We need to be willing to be there for the people who need us most.”

Andrew Penkala said ALC members plan to speak to classes at their own school and at middle schools. He said he hopes the posters will encourage others to reach out, “to start a healthy dialogue about mental health.”

“We know this will not be easy, but ... we are willing to take the first steps,” he said.

The R.E.A.C.T. campaign evolved from the Change Direction initiative spearheaded by former New Hampshire Supreme Court Chief Justice John Broderick, who is now an executive at Dartmouth-Hitchcock. For more than two years, Broderick has traveled to schools across the state, telling his family’s personal story of mental illness and encouraging students to ask for help if they need it.

Broderick met with the Nashua South students last week at the school. On Monday, he called them “perfect spokespeople for this campaign and, frankly, for your generation.”

Nashua South High School students (from left) Andrew Penkala, Kendall Bush, Jasmine Sylvester and Tanner Plourde spoke at the official unveiling of the R.E.A.C.T. poster campaign at the State House on Monday. (Shawne K. Wickham/UNION LEADER)

Sara Bresslin from the NHIAA praised the student athletes who have stepped up. “The whole team message is the core of who we are, and it is imperative that our students who are struggling with mental illness know and understand that they are not alone and we have their back,” she said.

Dr. Joanne Conroy, CEO and president of Dartmouth-Hitchcock, pointed out that half of all mental illness has its onset by age 14. “The time has begun to change the conversation,” she said.

The state’s education commissioner, Frank Edelblut, also praised the students involved in the campaign for “their willingness to speak out and encourage other students.”

“They have no idea the long-term impact their courage will have on the lives of so many other students,” he said.

Gov. Chris Sununu said everyone knows someone who is struggling with a mental health issue. “And it’s up to us to ... provide a path to wellness for those individuals,” he said.

Mental illness is not a choice, said Nashua student Jasmine Sylvester. “And it’s not anyone’s fault,” she said. “We need to stop putting the blame on those struggling with mental illness, but rather spread awareness and provide assurance.”

Classmate Tanner Plourde said students know they can’t end mental illness. “But we can end the way it’s viewed,” he said. “We want to start a new conversation about this issue.”

“If children think others look down upon this issue, they won’t discuss it with others and they won’t get the help they need and deserve,” he said.

“We’ve changed the way we’ve viewed other topics in the past, and this is just another step forward.”

Beyond the Stigma, a series exploring solutions to the state’s addiction and mental health challenges, is sponsored by the New Hampshire Solutions Journalism Lab at the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications and funded by the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, NAMI New Hampshire, and private individuals. Contact reporter Shawne K. Wickham at swickham@unionleader.com.


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