By Holly Austin Smith — From her column Speaking Out in the Washington Times Communities
RICHMOND, VA, January 2, 2013 – As New Year’s celebrations come to a close, I’d like to encourage everyone to remember the achievements, the sorrows, and the many important discussions and debates from 2012. The tragedy which occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School left so many of us stunned, speechless, and simply heartbroken. There isn’t much I can say that hasn’t already been expressed in response to the Newtown, Connecticut shootings and to the other recent violence from Colorado to New York City.
I would like to begin the New Year by continuing an important discussion which was born out of these horrific events, and that is the need for greater access to mental healthcare. Setting these tragedies aside for the moment, I want to express the general need for greater access to mental healthcare and for more comprehensive education about mental illness, especially for students, parents, and teachers.
As a survivor of child trafficking, I can speak from experience about the lack of appropriate mental healthcare available to me during my school-age years. The first signs of depression and anxiety appeared in late elementary school. By intermediate and middle school, I was exhibiting full-blown rage, which was directed both internally and externally. My behavior was above and beyond the angst experienced by a typical teenager, but neither I nor my family had the education to understand or recognize this.
I needed help. Real help, professional help.
Unfortunately, the only person who recognized this and invested some time in responding to my distress was a sex trafficker. He easily spotted me in a shopping mall shuffling behind my friends. I was staring into the faces of strangers, dressed in a way that suggested I was trying to look older and rebellious. It took this man only two weeks to determine over phone conversations that I was an easy victim.
Traffickers target girls and boys who are vulnerable, and vulnerability manifests in many ways, including untreated mental health issues. While some of my teachers and counselors recognized that I was struggling, their ability to help me was limited. I remember my eighth grade middle school counselor sitting next to me after I had experienced another meltdown. I knew she wanted to help me, but I also knew she didn’t know how. I remember wanting to ask for help but having no idea what was wrong.
I believe many teachers and school counselors want to help students suffering from mental illness but lack the training and access to resources to do so.
Andrea Powell, founder of FAIR Girls in Washington D.C., advocates for greater awareness and access to mental healthcare in each and every community.
“We need to seriously address the lack of compassionate and long-term mental health [resources] and counseling available in America,” she stated, “The continued stigma associated with even accessing mental health services continues to silence those who see someone in need. And, those in need are often too ashamed to ask.”
FAIR Girls (originally FAIR Fund) was created with the mission to empower girl survivors of trafficking in the U.S. and around the world. According to their website, FAIR Girls prevents the exploitation of girls worldwide via prevention education, compassionate care, and survivor-inclusive advocacy. Compassionate care for victims of trafficking includes personalized long-term counseling and art therapy. I believe my fate may have been different had I been connected to a community organization similar to FAIR Girls.
I also believe there needs to be greater awareness and discussion surrounding mental illness, especially with students. Even though I was struggling in intermediate and middle school, I never realized it may have something to do with me. I believed my feelings were normal reactions to my surroundings and that it was everyone else around me who needed to change. Had I understood the signs and symptoms of mental illness, perhaps I would have known how to ask for help.
My hope for the year 2013 and beyond is that we continue to discuss the issue of mental healthcare and that we invest more in our children’s education. I believe that begins with investing more in our teachers, our school systems, and our community’s mental health and child-focused resources. This is important because, as a society, we share in the joy and in the grief experienced by our friends and families.