AWARD-WINNING youth development nonprofit Free2Luv® launched multiple programs for Mental Health Awareness Month, including a public awareness billboard campaign co-sponsored by Lamar Advertising, partnership in MTV’s first-ever National Mental Health Day of Action, and a nationwide giveaway of their mental health creative expression activity book, “EXPRESS IT!”
Mental Health Awareness Month has been observed in May in the U.S. since 1949 with campaigns to raise awareness and reduce the stigma preventing people from seeking treatment.
Each year, approximately one in five Americans — more than 43 million people — experience mental illness, but less than half get the help they need.
The COVID-19 pandemic has taken an additional toll on the mental health of American youth. Mental health visits to emergency rooms by 12 to 17-year-olds increased 31% in 2020 compared with the previous year, with 1 in 4 people under age 18 struggling with suicidal thoughts since the beginning of the pandemic. Public Health departments across the country have issued increased suicide risk Health Advisories calling for preventative action.
Free2Luv and Lamar Advertising want kids and teens to know they are not alone. Billboards with the slogan “Let’s normalize asking for help!” were posted in the Seattle/King County and Las Vegas/Clark County throughout the month of May.
“The first step in minimizing this crisis is awareness and education, and we’re delighted to be holding hands with Lamar Advertising to bring much-needed attention to this epidemic in our community. We thank them for holding hands with us to promote this important message and for their stewardship of our communities’ well-being,” says Tonya Sandis, founder of Free2Luv, a Seattle-based nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting mental health, preventing bullying, and saving the lives of youth through the arts.
“Teens are struggling more than ever after a year of isolation, and as a society, we need to normalize asking for help, to let youth know that doing so is truly a sign of strength. Every time someone sees one of the billboards, we want them to know they are not invisible, we see you, and there is strength in our connection.”
As rates of depression, anxiety, and loneliness have increased among youth, suicidal ideation has become more prevalent. The risk is highest in marginalized and under-resourced groups, particularly racial minorities and LGBTQ+ youth.
Open and nonjudgmental conversations about mental health are necessary to reduce stigma and support recovery.
To move the conversation from awareness to action, Free2Luv and MTV Entertainment Group, in partnership with over 500 leading brands, nonprofits, and cultural leaders, announced the first National Mental Health Day of Action held on Thursday, May 20.
“The second and crucial step is action. We are excited to be partnering with MTV and a mental health coalition to focus on ‘action’ during Mental Health Awareness month. Our youth are suffering right now and there cannot be enough voices raised to support them. We encourage everyone to take action. It could be scheduling regular check-ins with the youth in your life. What we want everyone to realize is that a small action can make a big difference,” says Sandis.
Erika Soto Lamb, Vice President of Social Impact Strategy at MTV Entertainment Group, concurs. “From COVID-19 to economic struggles and the continuing fight for racial justice, the other half of the twin pandemic is the rise of our mental health challenges. This is a critical moment to shift our culture from mental health awareness to mental health action, and MTV is proud to come together with diverse cross-sector leaders on this inaugural day to encourage and empower people to take action — for themselves, for their loved ones, or for the systemic changes needed to improve our social and emotional wellbeing.”
This coalition has been brought together to spread the word that mental health is health. Often, the hardest step we can take on our mental health journey is the very first one — reaching out for the first time to a friend, walking into the first support group meeting, finding a therapist or calling a support line. It is time we all take care of our emotional wellbeing in the same way we tend to our physical health.
With the onset of COVID, Free2Luv enlisted child development specialists, mental health professionals, artists, and a youth collective to create “EXPRESS IT!” an innovative mental health creative expression activity book and empowerment program. Our program uses SEL (Social Emotional Learning) practices, art therapy techniques, and writing/journaling to educate at-risk students about mental health, help them express their thoughts and emotions, improve their moods, deal with their stressors in more positive ways, and save lives. Free2Luv is now providing EXPRESS IT! books and virtual empowerment workshops free of charge to high-risk and under-resourced youth.
“We know creative expression is a powerful outlet to heal, connect, and become more self-aware, and we want to share this gift with each of you,” urges Sandis. Anyone in the U.S. who reached out to Free2Luv on May 20th, through social media, website, or email, received a copy of EXPRESS IT! free of charge. We distributed a record number of books!