Teen helps start school mental health club after her own loss, depression | Health | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Teen helps start school mental health club after her own loss, depression

click to enlarge Teen helps start school mental health club after her own loss, depression
CP Photo: Jared Wickerham
Baldwin High School junior Brooklyn Williams pictured inside her home
Editor's note: This story contains references to suicide. If you or a loved one are in need of immediate support, help is available 24/7 at the Crisis Text Line: crisistextline.org
Shortly before the pandemic began, Brooklyn Williams' mother died. She'd had cancer for 10 years.

The 16-year-old, who lives with her father in Baldwin, was crushed by the dual weight of the death and the isolation caused by the lockdown in the spring of 2020. “My mom was my rock, and I lost that,” Brooklyn says.

Despite losing her touchstone, over the past three years she has managed to not only find her footing again with help from her dad, principal, and friends, but is now helping others.

Being shuttered in her house was, to Brooklyn, “the absolute worst thing” that could have happened while she dealt with the grief and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from her mother’s prolonged illness and death. She tried to spend some time focusing on self-care for her depression, she says, but found herself struggling to get out of bed or complete the most basic tasks in her life. Once she returned to school in the fall of 2020, she sought to put on a positive front for the benefit of others while feeling like a shell of her former self.

“I was putting everyone else first, and making sure they saw me as a happy person,” she says.

Everything came to a head shortly after Christmas of 2020, when she wasn’t able to keep up her strong facade any longer. School had resumed in person and she was falling behind. Her mental health began to impact h
er physical health and schoolwork. She was not playing as well as she wanted in basketball, and suffering from severe digestive issues.

“The stress was making me physically sick,” she says.

Once again, she found herself struggling to get out of bed or engage in her life. Brooklyn began to wonder if life was worth living at all and became suicidal.

At that point, despite what Brooklyn describes as intense societal pressure to keep mental health issues silent, she reached out to both her dad and her best friend, Lauren. “I was going through it alone, but once I reached out, things went from zero to one hundred really fast.”

They took Brooklyn seriously and believed her when she said she was drowning — two things that meant so much to her. They saw her. Her loved ones got her the help she desperately needed, which included a variety of medical professionals and medication that stabilized Brooklyn’s life.

While medication and therapy can be seen as shameful or weak by peers and adults, she credits them with saving her life. It made her realize that seeking help was a strong, not weak decision. This is the message she passionately wants to put out in the world.

Once she saw how much better she was able to cope with her mental health struggles after she invited others to share in her pain, it sparked an idea. Prior to the pandemic, Brooklyn had been class president for 9th and 10th grade. She was comfortable leading her peers and taking initiative, but decided to focus that drive on mental health instead of school politics.

Working with her principal, Shaun Tomaszewski, and the mental health providers at Baldwin High School from the Allegheny Health Network Chill Project, she launched the Chill Club.

“I wanted to improve the life of students, with all the craziness happening in the world,” Brooklyn says.

They began gathering together over Zoom, and now meet in person once a month. Along with painting and various other crafts, such as sewing their own clothes, they also focus on mindfulness and meditations. Last spring, students were able to attend a virtual class through Yale University on “the science of well-being.” The group, she says, helps her and her fellow students cope with the ongoing stress and anxiety of living through a pandemic. It also is a safe space for students struggling with a variety of mental health issues — anyone can show up to the meetings. The Chill Club has an open door policy.
click to enlarge Teen helps start school mental health club after her own loss, depression
CP Photo: Jared Wickerham
Baldwin High School junior Brooklyn Williams pictured inside her home
Recently, the club decorated holiday cookies (check out some of the designs on their Instagram page @BHSchillclub) for the teachers in their school. Brooklyn laughs as she admits the cut-out star and tree sugar cookies with Duncan Hines frosting were not very attractive, but the teachers were so excited and appreciative that it buoyed the spirits of everyone involved in their group. The Chill Club has shown Brooklyn that she can take time to care for herself and others, and that it doesn’t have to be one or the other.

What does she want to tell other teens struggling in solitude?

“Never keep it to yourself because it will eat away at you,” she says. “Force people to listen to you because you will benefit more than you know.”

She credits her dad and best friend with getting her the crucial help she needed. While she misses her mother immensely, she says she’s grown closer to her dad through this experience as he has advocated for her. He has been accepting of her struggles, supportive of her treatment, and even goes out to buy supplies for the Chill Club.

“My dad is one of my best friends,” Brooklyn says. “I do everything with him.”
Disclaimer: The author’s spouse is a therapist for the AHN Chill Project, though this piece is not an endorsement of the program and was produced independently.

This story was copublished with Unabridged Press and supported with funding from the Pittsburgh Media Partnership and All-Abilities Media — both based at the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University.

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