Generation Mental Health (GenMH), an organization dedicated to advancing mental health care as a universal right, concluded its third annual “Youth Advocating for the Future of Mental Health” conference Sunday afternoon after two days that included virtual and in-person programming.
Both days of the conference consisted of keynote speeches, panel discussions and interactive workshops. The first day of the program was entirely virtual and was open to the public so participants could attend from anywhere in the world. Sunday’s sessions, which were held in the Michigan League, marked the first time in the conference’s three-year history that organizations and mental health advocates in Ann Arbor were able to come together in person for the event.
At the in-person portion of the conference, various booths were present for participants to connect with representatives from organizations such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America and the U-M School of Social Work.
Francesca De Geronimo, LSA senior and the GenMH conference chair, spoke with The Michigan Daily in an interview before the conference about the importance of making both international and local connections over the course of the conference.
“We are having speakers … and attendees from around the world,” De Geronimo said. “That added perspective and sense of global community is something … that I’m grateful GenMH has been able to cultivate.”
One of the virtual keynote addresses Saturday afternoon was led by Richard Beck, a psychotherapist in New York City. Beck’s address, titled “Climate Change and Mental Health”, focused on the intersection between stress concerning environmental issues and mental health.
Beck asked attendees, who hailed from locations as far as Canada, Kenya and South Africa, to speak about how climate change has impacted their mental health. Participants discussed how climate-related issues such as food shortages have affected mental health in their communities.
A Sunday morning keynote titled “Incarceration and Mental Health” combined data-supported studies with personal anecdotes to highlight the connections between incarceration and mental illness, as well as the ways in which incarceration itself can be traumatic.
Becca Pickus, a clinical social worker and lecturer in the University of Michigan Residential College, spoke in the keynote about how a disproportionately high number of incarcerated individuals experienced childhood trauma. She also spoke about the prevalence of mental illness and substance use disorder among incarcerated individuals.
“Jails and prisons, or incarceration, has really become our primary social response to the public health epidemic of childhood trauma, as well as to mental illness and substance abuse challenges,” Pickus said. “The nation’s jails and prisons have become mental health facilities, a role for which they are singularly ill-equipped.”
Kenneth “Bear” Tello, a teaching assistant at the University, spoke after Pickus and shared his personal story with the prison system. Incarcerated at age 16, Tello served 21 years in Michigan prisons. He spoke about the trauma he experienced and how helpless and isolated he felt throughout his time in prison.
“There’s no way to rehabilitate yourself in an environment that perpetuates violence,” Tello said. “I’m coming here (to prison) to not be more violent, but the only way I feel like I can survive is to be violent.”
Pickus ended the keynote by describing how the funds allocated to the prison system could be redistributed to support mental health care and public education.
“In Michigan, we spend 2 billion dollars a year … into the criminalization and incarceration of those in our communities who have experienced … the highest rates of substance use challenges and mental illness,” Pickus said. “We could instead invest in the prevention and treatment of childhood trauma, substance use challenges and mental illness.”
Rackham student Natasha Zake said Tello’s perspective as someone who has been in the prison system stood out to her from the address.
“When it comes to conferences … and even in classes … we don’t hear from the people in the communities that we’re trying to help,” Zake said. “It was really nice to actually hear from someone who has been in the system and who has overcome it, but who also talked about the actual mental health implications that (Tello) faced because he was in the system.”
Another Sunday morning session titled “Disability Rights and Justice on Campus” featured a panel that addressed existing systems and proposed improvements for accommodating students with mental and physical disabilities at the University, as well as in education more generally.
The panel featured Ann Jeffers, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering; Allen Sheffield, associate director of Student Accessibility and Accommodation Services; Jaclyn Schess, founder and CEO of GenMH; and Dylan Secord, licensed social worker and adjunct professor at Oakland Community College. Schess said the panel topic was important to ensure that students are aware of the types of accommodations available in classrooms.
“Accommodations are available for students both for physical disability as well as every social disability,” Schess said. “We want to make sure that students at U of M are aware (of this).”
Sheffield said it is important to educate every student, regardless of whether or not they have a disability, about how accommodations function on campus.
“(People) lose sight of the fact that things are being done not because a person is … getting an advantage, but because they are being done to address … previous failures in the environment,” Sheffield said. “The more we can educate … the more likely students can realize that there is something here that can be supported.”
Schess also shared her difficulties with accessing educational resources as compared to other students.
“I have been a Ph.D. student for the last year and a half and … I’ve definitely had a hard time accessing education in the same way as my peers,” Schess said.
Workshops were also included in the conference to allow for further interaction between speakers and attendees. On Sunday afternoon, Mark Creekmore, board member at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, led a workshop on “Advocacy in Michigan for Mental Health Services.” Creekmore prompted participants to think about the important factors in planning advocacy efforts.
“The ultimate measure of mental health advocacy is whether systems improve people’s mental health.” Creekmore said. “The rest is (a) process. You have to keep your eye on the ball.”
The workshop also focused on the inclusion of diverse viewpoints in mental health advocacy. Following the workshop, Rackham student Vivian Nguyen spoke about this in the context of the U-M student body.
“I see that a lot of people understand (mental health topics) on a personal level, but not on a community building or institutional level,” Nguyen said. “Sometimes it’s hard at such a large school to know what’s out there.”
Nguyen suggested that organizations involved with mental health advocacy attempt to connect to certain communities in more targeted ways.
In an interview with The Daily after the workshop, Schess emphasized her message for the U-M community.
“I think that there’s a lot of pressure on young people to solve these major challenges, and then we wind up burning out,” Schess said. “Remember to take care of yourself and to try to not give into that pressure.”
Daily Contributor Bronwyn Johnston can be reached at email@example.com.