Mekhi Mckinsey said mental health among teenagers often is dismissed as just a passing feeling.
“It’s ‘she’s just shy,’ or ‘she’s just sad, she’ll get over it,’” said the 16-year-old rising senior at the World of Inquiry.
“That’s not always the case,” he said. “You should take what somebody’s going through seriously.”
Mckinsey said he wanted to learn more about mental health beyond just hearing the words anxiety and depression. He was among 15 teens from the Finger Lakes region who created material for their peers that says it’s OK to not be OK, and that it’s also OK to ask for help.
The FLX Teens are Alright campaign, supported by a grant from the National Library of Medicine, used the insights of young people to create age- and culturally-relevant messages for zines, posters, stickers and bookmarks. The material has been distributed in 74 libraries in five counties, including 32 libraries in Monroe County.
In the city, the information is available at the Central, Arnett, Charlotte, Frederick Douglass, Lincoln, Lyell, Maplewood, Monroe, Sully, Phillis Wheatley and Winton branches.
The teens worked with graphic designers from Rochester Institute of Technology on the pictures to go with slogans such as “You don’t have to figure everything out right now” and “It takes guts to seek help. It’s never too late.”
“Teens are experts at being teens, and too often decisions are made about them and for them by adults,” said Hannah Shippee, a program coordinator at Common Ground Health, which helped develop the initiative in partnership with the Monroe County Library System, Pioneer Library System, and Rochester Regional Library Council.
Common Ground Health received a $24,800 grant, which paid for some staff time, consultants, devices, printing and stipends for the teens. “We wanted to make sure we paid youth to demonstrate that we valued their time and their intellectual property they contributed to this project,” Shippee said. “They all did this project while juggling school, sports and home responsibilities.”
More information is at healthikids.org/flxteensarealright, and at hashtags flxteensarealright #mentalhealthawarenessmonth #youthmentalhealth #mentalhealthliteracy.
When he joined the group, Mckinsey thought he’d get a lecture on mental health. The teens did get some information and their questions answered. Then the tables turned. When it came time to develop the messages, they were the ones who became the experts.
“I didn’t think it’d be your opinion,” he said. “At first I was surprised. I really enjoyed it.”
Monique Carlton, who is scheduled to graduate All City and is enrolled at Monroe Community College in September, heard about FLX Teens are Alright through her school counselor.
She said she has been aware of her own mental health needs and attended a program at Interim Health Academy for a few months before the pandemic. She said it’s courageous and encouraging when teens and others speak out because mental health often is not a common topic for minority families.
“It gets pushed down,” she said. “People feel like they don’t matter when literally you do. People that speak about this, all props to you. You’re bringing this to the forefront and spreading awareness about what goes on. You’re going through these stages and helping people along your journey.”
The grant from the National Library Foundation was not related explicitly to the pandemic, but the connection of teen mental health in the midst of COVID-19 couldn’t be ignored.
“I feel that it was the right time,” Carlton said. “Now if somebody needs that push to get help or talk about help or even just deal with their own problem, they could do that. With the pandemic, everyone needs someone to talk to or a healthy coping mechanism.”
Carlton said that mental health can be hard to talk about and she hoped the material she and others worked out can start a conversation. “I want everyone to get something from it.”
Mckinsey said he gained insight into mental health and how people can cope with emotional distress. His contributions helped him feel pride.
“I feel like I achieved something.”