A wonderful story from the Long Island Advance about students in Bellport
High School taking a stand in support of mental health awareness. In the
last few weeks, we have shared articles statewide ranging geographically
from Western New York to Long Island about youth speaking out in support of
mental health public awareness and education. This is one of the most
positive trends in recent years in changing the mindset and culture
regarding public perception of mental health issues.

Students take a stand for mental health

Story By: TARA SMITH
12/14/2017

Four Bellport High School students approached the podium at the South
Country board of education meeting last Wednesday evening, making an
emotional plea for increased awareness and resources for students who may
be suffering from depression, anxiety and other mental maladies.

“It’s a sensitive topic that we feel is very important,” said Alexis
Spence, referring to issues like mental health and suicide.

The plea comes in the aftermath of the death of their friend, Rocel John
“RJ” Buada in August. He was 15.

After the meeting, Alexis reflected on her friendship with RJ, pointing out
that he was “caring, selfless and extremely intelligent.” She recalled
having classes with him, the material becoming increasingly difficult as
they got older. “Last year we were taking a difficult science class. There
were moments in the class where we would all stress about the science
material. RJ always lightened the mood with a quick joke, both making us
laugh yet helping us to learn the material,” she said. “It’s likely he
would have been the valedictorian of the 2020 class.”

After talking with her friends Savanna Borrero, Alexis Walker and Taylor
Fontana, the girls wrote a letter addressed to their principal, Tim Hogan.
“[RJ] was intelligent, he had friends, he had a loving family. But nobody
saw how he suffered on the inside. This is why it is imperative we start
talking about mental health awareness because unlike a drug addiction,
depression and suicidal thoughts are not as clear to see,” the letter
reads.

At the board meeting, the girls presented BOE members with copies of the
letter and presented statistics to support their findings. Savanna proposed
a mental health awareness week at the high school, noting that suicide is
among the leading causes of death among teenagers. Some statistics were
staggering, reflecting concerning nationwide trends. The CDC reports that
from 2007 to 2015, suicide rates among teenagers reached their highest
point in 40 years. A separate report published by the CDC found that
suicides for the U.S. population as a whole increased 24 percent over a
15-year period.

“The idea to do a mental health awareness week came to mind when I went to
RJ’s wake,” Spence wrote in an email. “I remember seeing him and feeling so
heartbroken. I felt that if I had been a better friend and maybe more aware
of his needs, he would still be here. I decided that I never wanted to see
another life lost to suicide.”

Though the students are aware that teachers, guidance counselors and school
psychologists are trained to spot signs of depression and suicidal actions
in students, the girls believe students should have equal knowledge. “If a
friend can spot it out in a friend, it could save a life,” Spence said.

The awareness week, Savanna said, could include PSA-type posters that
spotlight available resources and hotlines, guest speakers, fundraisers for
mental health organizations and creating a safe space for kids to talk.
They also hope to memorialize their friend RJ by planting a tree, holding a
vigil or dedicating a bench in the spring.

“We aren’t the only people who feel this way,” she added, holding up a
petition with over 600 signatures collected from fellow students in just
two days.

Board members wiped away tears as they heard the presentation. “We deal
with so much of the business end here on the board of education, but it’s
important to hear from students, how you’re feeling and what is actually
affecting you each and every day,” said board president Cheryl Felice,
thanking the students for their courage. She acknowledged that it’s a
“tough road” for teenagers, intensified by cyberbullying and social media
use. After the meeting, Felice told the *Advance* that she admires their
strength and that the district is in full support of their initiative.

Newly elected board member Jack Nix said he admires the students’ proposal.
“It does my heart good to see young people trying to make a difference,” he
said. “I was so moved by their testimony and look forward to working
together to create a mental health awareness week. This is an issue that
needs to be discussed at schools, at home and in popular culture.”

In April, rapper Logic released “1-800-273-8255,” a single that embraces a
simple message: suicide is never the answer. Wanting people to know that
help is always available, the song’s title is the phone number to the
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. During a live performance of the
impactful song at the MTV Video Music Awards this past summer, Logic spoke
up about the themes of his track amid a stage full of survivors wearing
“You are not alone” T-shirts. “I just want to take a moment right now and
thank you for giving me a platform to talk about something that mainstream
media doesn’t want to talk about: mental health, anxiety, suicide,
depression and so much more that I talk about on this album,” he said on
stage. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline reported a 50 percent
increase in calls after his performance on television.

Sharon Walker, whose daughter Alexis also presented an emotional account at
the meeting, said that she is proud of the teenagers.

“They wanted to do something peer-to-peer instead of relying on adults to
help,” she said, noting that she had a few conversations with Alexis but
was surprised to see how the girls worked together to come up with the
plan.

RJ’s mom, Cecilia Buada, sat in the audience at the board meeting that
night with no intentions of speaking. “I got inspired as I listened to his
classmates,” she said in an interview the next day. Recalling the summer
days leading up to her son’s death, Buada admitted that she thought he was
getting better after struggling with depression. “He was spending a lot of
time outside, biking and running, trying to build up his stamina,” she
said. He was planning to try out for sports teams in the coming school
year.

She acknowledges that her son was bullied in middle school, but said she
noticed a change in high school, like he was happier. Buada, an ICU nurse
from the Philippines, admits that things are different back home. “I had no
idea middle school was so tough on kids,” she said.

Hogan said he was proud of his students and looking forward to bringing the
issue front and center. “We will be presenting a mental health awareness
week in May and our Shared Decision Making team — with representation from
building administration, faculty, staff, parents and students — is planning
the schedule of activities and assembly programs to take place,” he said,
noting that topics would include anxiety, depression and self-harm. Hogan
added that the awareness week would be tentatively scheduled for May.

Through tears, Buada said quietly that grief has been her “hardest trial”
as a mother, turning to her faith to keep her centered. She often reads a
note RJ left behind, interpreting it as a call to action. “The way I read
it, I want to make a change. I want to make sure my son’s life wasn’t
wasted by helping other kids who might be struggling,” she said. “I can
hear him saying, ‘do something — help the kids.’” She said she hopes to
work with both RJ’s friends and the district to discuss ideas for the
awareness week.

www.longislandadvance.net/5021/Students-take-a-stand-for-mental-health