In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, Madeline Miller, former YouthACT member, from Indiana, shares her mental health advocacy story highlighting the power of disability pride and giving hope to others.
Since I was in kindergarten, I’ve always had trouble managing my anxiety. I had many fears in the classroom and wouldn’t speak or play with any of my other classmates. In elementary school, I started to get progressively worse. In middle school, I started having panic attacks and developing strange behaviors that I couldn’t control. I started seeing a therapist for my irrational fears, social anxiety, and a new symptom of mine—depression. Although therapy helped, it wasn’t enough. My therapist recommended I start on medication. In high school, I tried medication after medication, but nothing seemed to work on my changing brain. At 16, I was given an additional diagnosis of being on the Autism spectrum. This diagnosis helped explain many of my strange behaviors that I’d had since I was little. We finally found a psychiatrist that I trusted, and things seemed to be looking up.
During my junior year in high school, I had the opportunity to attend the Indiana Youth Leadership Forum, which was a week-long overnight conference for high school juniors and seniors with disabilities in Indianapolis. The group was put into place to help people with disabilities become advocates for themselves within their own communities. This was the first time I had ever thought of my disability and been proud of it and could work with others who felt the same way.
A staff member at the conference asked me to become involved with more advocacy work that was based in Washington, D.C. That initiative was NCWD/Youth’s National Youth Action Council on Transition (YouthACT). I was involved with YouthACT from 2015-2017. As a result of the goals and leadership activities my team set under the YouthACT initiative, I started meeting with local professionals in the mental health field about having the community make art and letters to support teens and kids spending time in behavioral and mental health hospitals. I wanted to create this project because I was once in a similar situation. I knew how much it meant to have someone tell you, “You are brave, you are strong, and you matter in this world.” I wanted to let the youth know that they are still meaningful and valuable people in the world. I needed them to know they are not forgotten, even when they might feel completely alone and ready to give up on life. I decided to call the program, “Help Make Hope”.
Since “Help Make Hope” began I’ve held about ten art-making workshops, and during those workshops, people in the community created over 400 handwritten letters and pieces of art for the youth who are in the hospital. At the hospital, youth are given a letter attached to an original piece of art, as well as a flyer for a peer support group that I started as a leadership activity under YouthACT. Teens Helping Teens, the support group, meets outside the hospital and provides a safe space for teens to talk freely about what’s going on in their lives.
In my second year of YouthACT, I was offered a teleworking position at Youth M.O.V.E. Indiana as a local chapter leader. Youth M.O.V.E. is a peer-run organization that strives to add a youth voice to health policy and community mental health movements. With Youth M.O.V.E., I continued working on the projects I created with YouthACT. As my work with Youth M.O.V.E. continued, I found I wanted to work in a different environment. I needed people to bounce ideas off of and to get out of the house. This spring, I was offered a job with my local Mental Health America chapter. I now work on a team as a peer support specialist. Through this job, I plan to continue the work I started with YouthACT and continue to expand and grow professionally and personally through this work.
For resources on health and youth leadership, visit http://www.ncwd-youth.info/youth-action-council-on-transition-youthact/.