Thursday, September 26 | Human Services, Cause Connected

Standing Up to the Stigma

By Netsmart

After 15 Johnson County, Kansas high school teenagers lost their lives to suicide in the 2017-2018 school year, six superintendents decided it was time to take action. They started by banding together once a month to see how they could combat the growing issue, eventually creating a front-porch style conversation for anyone to join. As discussions surrounding ideas, obstacles and goals geared toward preventing teenage suicide grew, the superintendents eventually landed on creating a grassroot, mobile style campaign: #ZeroReasonsWhy. 
The campaign was designed to help curb teen suicide by erasing the stigma that often surrounds mental health. #ZeroReasonsWhy is managed by the Kansas City-based agency, Overflow. Through a storytelling approach, the movement works to spark conversations, build community support and increase education regarding mental health in schools. 
“Say there is a kid who thinks they should probably go talk to a counselor but feels embarrassed,” Jeff Short, Overflow chief creative officer, said. “We want them to think of how many other students deal with and care about this issue, so then they’re no longer afraid or feeling isolated when seeking assistance. The more we can destigmatize the issue, the more kids will feel like they can get help without being judged for it.”
Storytelling is a fundamental way the #ZeroReasonsWhy movement fights to destigmatize mental health. Students share their stories, which are posted on the campaign’s website alongside the tagline “Zero reasons why this conversation is too taboo.” The page is full of teenagers opening up about experiences, both personal and second-hand, with mental health, including depression, anxiety and suicide.
In addition to their website, the group has an active presence on social media, including Facebook and Instagram pages. On their Twitter page students share their stories, as well as #ZeroReasonsWhy activities, events and initiatives. Their strong online presence opens up the discussion of mental health in a way that’s digestible and relatable for students. Sharing these personal and intimate stories on a public platform eliminates the idea that mental health issues or suicide are things people shouldn’t openly discuss.
“It was surprising how many teens were willing to share their story. I think a lot of them felt some relief that there was an outlet for them to share,” Short said. “It’s so brave for them to share what they’ve been through. In the past, I don’t know that they have really had the opportunity to do so.”
Although launched by adults, the creation of #ZeroReasonsWhy is led by students, for students. To ensure the campaign was spearheaded with students’ ideals at its core, a teen council was created where students act as an executive committee. The council meets once a month to discuss strategic plans, upcoming events and more ways to spread awareness. Along with the teen council, students can also become a #ZeroReasonsWhy ambassador. Student ambassadors show their support by attending rallies and campaign events, while working to spread awareness in their own schools. 
In hopes of helping the campaign expand its impact, Oak Park Mall, a common gathering ground for teens in the Johnson County area, donated a store front where passersby can learn about the cause, seek resources provided by #ZeroReasonsWhy’s sponsor organization, the Johnson County Mental Health Center, and pick up some campaign swag, such as stickers or wristbands to continue to raise awareness. 
The group also advocates among the community on behalf of the campaign, most recently speaking in front of the Johnson County Board of County Commissioners. Blue Valley West senior and teen council member Pooja Jain gave the presentation to the commissioners, explaining what #ZeroReasonsWhy is, what they stand for and a look inside their goals. Regardless of the council’s effort or initiative, they are always working toward a bigger cause, removing the looming stigma and showing there are zero reasons why suicide is an option.
“I know I’m a part of something bigger than myself by being on the teen council,” Jain said. “It’s not just helping one person, it’s helping a lot of people. This is such a big problem, so it’s really important for us to remove the stigma surrounding mental health right now.”
In honor of September being National Suicide Prevention Month, #ZeroReasonsWhy will be hosting a march and rally to empower teens, both within and outside the Johnson County area. It’s an opportunity for the community to come together and advocate for a shared cause. Last year, #ZeroReasonsWhy banners were hung in the high schools, where students could write their own words of encouragement for all to see. Short noted how big of a hit this was among students last September, and the group hopes to do again this year. 
Moving forward, the council, ambassadors and adult leaders plan to continue working on spreading awareness, promoting education and continuing the conversation to remove the stigma. Although #ZeroReasonsWhy is currently focused in Johnson County, it doesn’t begin or end there. Campaign advocates are determined to share their message across county and state lines, helping as many people as they can along the way. Most importantly, they plan to allow students’ stories to continue to shed light and spark dialogue.
“Anyone across the country can see these stories and be touched,” Short said. “The topic is universally important. We’ve seen great success with the stories being told and the way people are engaging with them. It’s been so fulfilling to see the kind of impact they’ve had.”



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