JJ’s Hello Foundation’s Mission to Say Goodbye to Youth Suicide

It’s every parent’s worst nightmare: losing a child. No matter how it happens, it will haunt any parent that experiences this loss for the rest of their lives. But this Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, we need to look directly in the face one of the most haunting ways to lose a child, and recognize that it’s happening to far too many families in this country. 

Unfortunately, Michelle Anderson, and her husband Josh, have had to stare the specter of youth suicide in the face for the last six years, after their son JJ died by suicide at the age of just 12 in February of 2016. For most of us, if we’re forced to think about such a tragic situation happening to us, we might imagine that we’d collapse under the weight of the grief, and struggle to find ways to move forward – and that is totally understandable when faced with something that is so, well, un-understandable. 

But for the Andersons, the loss of their son was a call to action, and not a time to look away. They turned their grief into action, in the hopes that other parents would not have to experience the unthinkable, and started their organization, JJ’s Hello Foundation, to educate parents, educators, and young people on the stark reality of youth suicide. We spoke to Michelle Anderson, and she graciously shared her story, so that we can all benefit from her wisdom and action.

“There Was Nothing Out There at All”

jj and his parents
The Andersons started JJ’s Hello Foundation to not just to support survivors, but to also to pick up the slack when it came to resources for and about young people at risk for suicide.

The Andersons did have to experience that unthinkable reality of youth suicide – and the aftermath was not only devastating, but confusing and disheartening. During their time of overwhelming grief, they had nowhere to turn, and couldn’t find what they needed to get through that terrible time: “While we were in the hospital with him, we had no resources,” Michelle told us. “We were trying to figure out where to go, how to move forward, and trying to figure out what can help us, as far as the family and dealing with the loss at the time. So we were just sitting there, and we realized there was nothing out there at all. And with our son being so young, of course they have the suicide hotline, but that was still kind of geared toward older people.”

The situation they were in spurred the Andersons to head online, but not simply to search for help for themselves. They were determined to find out what was out there, and when they were dissatisfied with what they found, they created something. They decided to start JJ’s Hello Foundation – but not just to support survivors. Their goal was also to pick up the slack when it came to resources for and about young people at risk for suicide.

And that’s because it wasn’t just that they couldn’t find resources after the worst had happened. They found out first-hand that there are far too many kids out there who are struggling, and aren’t getting the help they need. In fact, JJ taught them that, not only because of the way he died, but because he knew the real depth of the problem around him.

While the Andersons had been originally baffled as to why JJ took his own life – he wasn’t being bullied at that time, he was a straight-A student, and was involved in his school and community – they found out later that it was because of his desire to help the kids around him, kids that weren’t truly being seen or heard. 

So for the Andersons, JJ’s real legacy is not the way that he died, but the way that he lived: after he died, his parents found out that he had been trying to be a one-person mental health resource for the kids around him. According to Michelle, “A lot of people think that these kids take their lives because they’re being bullied, or you know, but that wasn’t the case with our son – [we found out] after he passed that it had more to do with taking in other people’s issues and problems. So it kind of put everything together for us…he was carrying a lot of other stuff for kids in his peer group – girls who were being molested by family members, LGBTQ kids who couldn’t come out to their parents… So he kind of mentored them through all that, and then he didn’t have an outlet. So with all that in mind, we decided to start the foundation so that we would be able to help teens that are needing those kinds of resources and help.”

“It’s Mind-Blowing”

So how big is the problem? Bigger than most of us would like to think about – and probably scarier when it comes to who is at risk. According to Michelle, “…[O]ne of the saddest things right now is the age range – it’s from 8 to 17, there’s very high numbers of suicides. It’s eight now. It’s very mind-blowing.” 

What’s just as mind-blowing is the fact that suicide is now the second leading cause of death for middle and high school students (ages 12-18), and for young people ages 18 – 22. Overall, suicide is the second leading cause of death for people ages 10 – 24. All of this means that, according to JJ’s Hello Foundation’s website, “More teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease, COMBINED.”

This is actually an alarming trend, not something we’ve just always dealt with: suicides among children ages 10 -14 have doubled since 2006. And almost 4,000 high school students are attempting suicide every day (we don’t have the numbers for younger children, but the number would be much higher if we did) – so it’s clear we need to act. But what can we do? Well, with 4 out of 5 teens who attempt suicide giving warning signals before they do so, it sounds like we need to all be paying more attention, to be seeing and hearing the kids in our lives – and JJ’s Hello Foundation is trying hard to teach all of us how to do that.

“When People Are Living That, They Need to Know They’re Not Alone”

Despite these dizzying and discouraging statistics, the Andersons are not giving up. While their foundation has multiple projects – including putting together and distributing mental health kits for young people and co-running an online suicide loss survivors support group – what they seem most proud of is the work they do directly with young people and adults who could be affected by suicide.

Their foundation goes into schools, who generally reach out to them, especially after a parent has lost a child or a child has attempted suicide, and speak to the kids, the parents, and the educators, so everyone can feel like they’re in things together. They talk about how adults and kids can recognize signs of depression and suicide, and how important it is to make sure everyone is seen and heard, as well as how important it is to speak up – not only if you’re struggling, but if someone else is. That’s JJ’s legacy.

JJ and his mom“We go in and we tell them, as parents that lost a child to suicide, we explain to them in hindsight what we learned, what we wish we would have known. It’s one of those things where you don’t  think, as a parent, that your child even knows about suicide.”

They take questions and comments, and also want to be there as another resource to get the kids at the school the help they need. “I can see certain expressions on certain kid’s faces,” Michelle said, “because we’re also mental health first-aiders, so we can see whenever there are a couple of students who could be struggling, we kind of see it.” 

The most important thing, for Michelle, is that they’re there, not just talking, but also listening, as well as making it clear that this happened to them, and it can happen to anyone. Most importantly, they need people to understand that no one is ever alone in their struggles. 

“My biggest thing is that there are a lot of parents and people who are struggling with someone that’s depressed, that’s contemplating [suicide],” said Michelle, “…so when those people are living that, they need to know that they’re not alone. There are other people – a lot of people out there – that are dealing with a family member, or a child, that is also going through a lot of mental health issues. And I think the biggest thing is the stigma – people are scared to talk about it, and they need to be able to open up.” 

And the stigma goes both ways: while we often focus on the stigma that might make it difficult for those experiencing mental health issues to open up, parents who have a child who is struggling might also feel that there is a stigma surrounding having a child experiencing mental health issues, and might find it difficult to open up about what their child is going through. But Michelle urges parents to speak to their child’s school if they are concerned, and not stay silent: “Always start with the school: the school is that child’s second parent,” she says. 

“To the World You Are One Person, to One Person You Are the World”

The Andersons are out there, in the trenches, doing amazing work. They are continually opening up about the nightmare they went through, but for Michelle, that doesn’t rip the wounds open, it helps to heal and move forward. She wants us to know that talking about it can help you, but it can also help those around you, who might also be struggling, or need to know what they can do:JJ and his dad

“Talking about our son and everything we went through is kind of really therapeutic,” she said, “and it also – I’m one of those people that’s very straightforward, I’m not shy, I’m not scared to say things – so being able to talk about it, and knowing that people are actually hearing what I’m saying, and not just listening, I think it makes a world of difference…[Talking about it] also reassures us that what we’re doing is working, it’s positive, it helps us to help others.”

But Michelle points out that she’s only one person, and her organization is only one small foundation, no matter how impactful it is. She urges us, as parents and as parts of communities, to do our small parts with the people in our lives – our families and the strangers around us.

When it comes to our roles as parents, she told us: “I think it’s important that we, as parents, make time – not find time – make time, because if you’re looking for something, you’re never going to find it….Even if it’s an hour, or even if it’s on the way to school, or the way home from school, just like 15-20 minutes, but that’s enough time to show your kids that you see them, and that you’re there for them…Just talk to them, let them know that you’re listening, and let them know that they mean the world to you. That’s one of our mottos: ‘To the world you are one person, to one person you are the world.’ And we are our children’s world, so we need them to know they’re a big part of our world, and we’re here for them.”

In addition, anyone, any adults that have contact with children, can be there the way that the Andersons are, just in smaller ways by “Just talking to them and letting them know that there are other choices. For them not to be scared to speak – talk to their parents, talk to their teacher.” 

And she wants us to remember: it’s us, the adults, who model how children find their places in the world, and we need to step things up. “I can see why kids are going through what they’re going through, said Michelle, “because if we don’t show that we care, why should they?”

“Say Hello, Save a Life”: JJ’s Legacy

people signing hello cards
“Say hello, save a life.”

Finally, we’ll leave you with where JJ’s Hello Foundation got its name, and a little about the boy who sparked the whole thing. Michelle told us, “JJ, well, he really fell in love with the word ‘hello’. And when the song came out from Adele, he took it into a different context, and not as what she was singing about. So to him, it’s ‘hello’ to be seen, so we figured because he talked to everybody [that was a fitting name]…he didn’t care who you were, if you talked to him, he would hold a whole long conversation with you, he would help you with anything that you needed…”

So, to honor his legacy, the Andersons are carrying on his mission to help others and to make them feel seen – and, as Michelle says, “To be quite honest, I think the one thing everyone can all do is show kindness, and all you have to do is to say ‘hello’. Say hello, save a life…just to say hi to someone lets them know, “I see you, and I appreciate you.’”

If you, or someone you know, especially a young person, needs help, please reach out and use one of the following resources:

  • National Suicide Prevention Crisis Line – 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or Text “Hello” to 741-741 
  • Crisis Chat – http://Crisischat.org
  • I’m Alive (Online Crisis Chat) – http://www.imalive.org
  • The Trevor Project (LGBTQ specific hotline) – 1-866-488-7386

And if you’d like to help JJ’s Hello Foundation with a donation of either money or supplies for their mental health kits, head here.

One final note: Michelle shared with us that her vision for the future of the foundation is a center for children in crisis, since right now in California where they are, kids with mental health issues are put in one little part of the hospital, or are being sent to other parts of the country for help. We wish them all the luck in their endeavors, and hope you will check out the work they are doing, and help if you can. Stay well out there, listen to each other, and if you’re a parent, hug your kids extra tight – we know we will do just that. 

Co-written by Joanna Bowling

Make It A September To Remember

kids in schoolyard
September is a great month to get your business involved in local schools.

 It’s September already (can you believe it?!) and maybe the schools in your neighborhood have been in session for a few weeks now or perhaps they’re just kicking off the new school year. No matter where you live it’s not too late to think about reaching out to a neighborhood school or school district to see how you can help out. Not only is it a great way to build a positive image of your agency, it’s a wonderful, cost-effective, subtle advertising technique that has the potential to reap so many benefits for your business’ reputation. The options are endless to make your community and clients remember your business this September and beyond.

Why Reach Out to Schools?

school supplies
A backpack drive is a great tool to increase your business’s visibility in the community.

Schools need support from everyone, not just teachers and parents. Businesses in the community are a great resource. You likely have assets that schools can benefit from and the payback may be the most valuable you’ll ever receive. Your public perception from an act of community goodwill will skyrocket. You’ll be reaching an untapped audience and will gain some loyal clients in the process.

Think Outside the Backpack

Of course a school isn’t going to turn down a check so if that’s all you have time or energy to commit to, don’t hesitate to fill one out and send it in. The recipients will be more than grateful and any amount large or small will be appreciated and a positive association to your agency will be made. But if you have some time to offer, try some of these creative ideas that can help you help the kids and schools in your community and leave a lasting impression and impact.

  • Sponsor a backpack drive. To get started, set up collection boxes in your lobby, design posters promoting it, and post on your social media accounts exactly what you’re collecting. Clients old and new can swing by and drop off their donations. Give a goal that you want to fill up X number of backpacks before school begins to distribute to children in the community. Once the deadline passes and you have your backpacks filled, you can distribute as you see fit. Contact the school’s principal if you’re not sure how or where to hand the backpacks out. Even if school is already in session, you can collect some supplies to distribute all year long.
  • Get branded supplies. Think about a cheap, customizable school supply that will be used constantly and then order within your budget. Be sure to order it with your logo or contact information prominently displayed so your name isn’t forgotten. There will always be a need for a pencil, pen, or highlighter so why not have potential clients (or their children) reach for one with your name on it?
  • Get in touch with the PTA. If you’re at a loss as to where to focus your efforts, ask the parents, particularly ones on the school’s PTA. They know what projects need the most attention and are most urgent. Maybe there’s an upcoming Teacher Appreciation Day that needs a lunch sponsored or the gym needs a new coat of paint. Foot the bill and get great exposure and word-of-mouth advertising for your agency.
  • Sponsor Back-To-School Night. It’s the one night a year where parents and teachers are running through the halls trying to get acclimated to their new normals. You can have a table with giveaways (don’t forget to display your business cards) or maybe some water bottles to quench the thirst of some chatty parents. Whatever it is you come up with you will have guaranteed foot traffic of potential clients that night.

Little Effort, Big Impact

little boy at school
Pull your company out of a marketing slump and get involved in a back-to-school campaign.

Back-to-school time is a golden opportunity for you and your business to get involved in your community or foster an already established relationship. It’s easy to get lost in a sea of other businesses so use this time to put you and your business back on potential clients’ radar. If you’re in a marketing slump, consider a September comeback and make it an annual giving event. You’re the best judge of the amount of time, money, and involvement you can afford so take a look and make a big (or small) move and make it a September to remember!

Molly Pinta: The Pride of Buffalo Grove, Illinois

What 12-year-old wouldn’t want to throw a giant party? That’s exactly what Molly Pinta, co-founder of the Pinta Pride Project, pulled off, with the help of her parents and an encouragingly supportive community. That’s pretty special, but what’s even more special is the reason she wanted to plan this event, since this wasn’t just any party. This was the first-ever Pride Parade to be held in the Illinois town of Buffalo Grove, located about an hour outside of Chicago. And her reason for putting it together was her fearless and big-hearted need to make everyone – everyone – feel loved, accepted, and included. 

We talked to Molly and her mother, Carolyn Pinta, about Molly’s months-long efforts to put this wildly successful event together, the long-awaited return of the Buffalo Grove Pride Parade this year, and Molly’s amazing ability to bring people together not just in her midwestern town, but around the country.

“I Realized They Need Support”

picture of Molly Pinta in a tie dye shirt
Molly Pinta, co-founder of the Pinta Pride Project.

Before her involvement in the LGBTQ Pride movement, Molly Pinta, now 16, was determined to make everyone in her community, especially her young peers, feel loved and accepted, and that they had a space for themselves. 

Her local middle school did not have a Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA), a “student-led and student-organized school club that aims to create a safe, welcoming, and accepting school environment for all youth, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity” (per the ACLU), so she took it upon herself to start one, with the help of Carolyn, who is a teacher at her former school.

Molly points out that this club was an important way to give kids a community, kids that often didn’t get the support they needed at home or anywhere else. “We had lots of people come out in that club, and lots of people were able to find a community then at our school…I realized they need support, and they didn’t have it as much at my school as we would like.” 

Carolyn agrees: “I really feel for the kids there, and there are plenty of them…the kids in that club (I’m still at the school she went to and still run the acceptance club there) unfortunately, they do not get the support at home.”

Molly’s efforts to create a strong support network at her school were indeed extremely important. Some studies from last decade found that 85% of LGBT youth reported being harassed because of their sexual orientation, and 64% reported feeling unsafe at school, but research now shows that organizations like GSAs can actually combat this. 

In a meta-analysis of 15 independent studies surveying nearly 63,000 high school students published by Journal of Youth and Adolescence, researchers found that students who attended a school with a GSA were:

  • 52% less likely to hear homophobic remarks
  • 36% less likely to be fearful for their personal safety
  • 30% less likely to experience homophobic victimization

And that goes for all students, not just those who participate in GSAs. According to the study authors, “Having a GSA can send a strong message to all students that their school is a welcoming place where all people are accepted and that homophobic acts will not be tolerated…With LGBTQ and straight peers supporting each other, students blossomed, grew and became more confident—and felt safer at school.”

And Molly’s focus on making everyone, especially young people, feel loved and accepted, made her want to create a Pride event for all. And so the seeds were planted for Pinta Pride Project, and its baby, the Buffalo Grove Pride Parade, a family-friendly event that she could share with everyone in her community.

“We Were Just So Amazed by the Love We Felt” 

Molly with her parents one each side of her showing affection.Molly gives a lot of credit to her parents, Carolyn and Bob Pinta (who helped her co-found the Pinta Pride Project), for the empathy and predisposition to activism that she’s shown since she was in middle school. They took her to her first Pride Parade in Aurora, Illinois (a suburb of Chicago) when she was 12; the parade, the only Pride event in her local area (other than the Chicago Pride Parade), made a huge impression on her. 

“We went there and we were just so amazed,” said Molly. “We were just so amazed by the love we felt, and we wanted to bring that love to other people.” So she and her parents decided to, well, just do it. Molly is pretty humble about her incredible efforts to pull off an event of this size and success when she was just 12: “We were in the car, and we were like, we love this parade! And we kind of just jumped on it. We didn’t expect it to get as big as it did, or to raise as much money as we did, but I guess the people in Buffalo Grove were really ready for something like this.”

The town does indeed seem to have been ready, both in terms of helping to get the parade off the ground financially, and in terms of getting out of the way and letting it go forward. Although they started with a simple (and successful) GoFundMe page, Molly and her parents eventually brought an impressive amount of local sponsors on board, and raised a lot of money through the nonprofit they set up, the Pinta Pride Project. 

“Especially with what’s going on in the world right now,” said Carolyn, “folks are eager to be involved and show that my company doesn’t go for that, my company wants to stand with you. So it’s really heart-warming.” All of their fundraising brought in over $50,000 dollars, enough to make the event a much bigger, and more exciting, event than even Molly had dreamed. 

Molly and family at the Today Show
Due to her incredible dedication, Molly and her organization was featured on the Today Show.

For their part, the local government had no issues with the Pinta’s ideas, only asking that they raise the money privately and do everything the police asked them in terms of safety and security for the event. The town even went one step further, training local police in “best practices for Pride events” before the parade.

So, with all their careful planning and fundraising, the first Buffalo Grove Pride Parade went off without a hitch in 2019. As Molly said, it was bigger than she had imagined it would be, with around 8,000 people participating. Molly, only 13 by that point, was such a hit that she was asked to be the Youth Grand Marshal of the 2019 Chicago Gay Pride Parade, and was featured on The Today Show for her work. The Chicago parade officials called her “a shining example of the hard work and sacrifices” of LGBTQ activists throughout history.

But that year – 2019 – should set off alarm bells. Less than one year later, the Covid-19 pandemic hit, forcing them to cancel the in-person parade for 2020. Of course, that didn’t stop Molly from bringing Pride to her community that dark year. The Pintas just creatively switched gears and kept the love coming to Buffalo Grove. 

“It ended up being very cool what we ended up doing,” Carolyn said: instead of a traditional parade, they hosted what they called “The Pride Drive” (her dad’s idea, according to Molly). Participants could drive around the neighborhoods of Buffalo Grove to experience their event: “We had a ton of houses put up decorations,” said Molly, “and host drag queens, and music, and we created a path you could go through of around 100 houses, so people could go around in their car (and get out if they felt safe to) and experience something sort of like a parade.” 

And that’s not all that the Pinta Pride Project has been up to. Although it started as an organization meant to raise money for one Pride Parade, the overwhelming amount of money and support they have gotten has encouraged the Pintas to branch out and create other events. They have held events celebrating Trans Day of Visibility, National Coming Out Day celebrations, vigils to raise awareness for trans people who have experienced violence, and a GSA prom. 

“It Has Created So Many Connections Between People”

The Pinta Pride Project is still going strong, and the Buffalo Grove Pride Parade will make its triumphant in-person return this year. “We’re very excited to have our parade this year! And we hope people are excited to come to a real parade again!” said Molly. And it’s not just the actual parade that everyone in her community feels the benefits of, according to Molly – it’s the connections that it forms.people in rainbow clothing smiling

“It has created so many connections between people. It’s helped people in this community find people just like them that they can talk to, find support, and overall has just created this awareness and education about the LGBTQ community in Buffalo Grove. Which is so important – a lot of people are just unaware, they just don’t know things, and I think our project is an opportunity to learn, and meet people like you, or not like you! There is so much to learn from other people!”

And, according to Carolyn, speaking to the Chicago Tribune at the time of the first parade, the event was more than just another day on the community calendar: it allowed young people especially to feel seen and accepted. “That’s why we feel all these pride things are so important,” Carolyn told the newspaper, “so if they’re not being accepted at home, they know there is a whole world in the real world that does accept me, once when I get to this phase and become an adult, I will be just fine. That’s what we hope for.” Molly agreed, telling NBC at the time, “This parade really is important because of all the kids who don’t have supportive homes, and they need to get it somewhere, and this is where they can get it.”

In fact, the Pinta Pride Project is no longer “just” a local organization, hosting a local event. Their Facebook page has exploded, bringing people together to share their experiences and find real connection and understanding, something that both the world of social media and the wider world seem to be struggling with in our current climate. For example, one woman who attended their Trans Day of Visibility event posted afterward that it was the first time she’d gone out dressed exactly as herself, and then opened up about how it felt inside to be transgender. Said Molly, “And all the comments were like, ‘Wow, I’ve never thought of that before!’ It really helps people learn.”

While the Pintas – and Molly especially – have gotten mostly positive feedback and support for what they’re doing and what they stand for, there have been unfortunate incidents of harassment. But they remain positive in the face of it: “We’ve been so lucky that when there is a major incident like that,” said Carolyn, “we always end up getting more support.”

“We’re All About Visibility”

Turns out the love and support they have given their community is coming back to them, as they deserve. Molly, in addition to being a Youth Grand Marshal and receiving tons of good press, was also named a Youth Ambassador for the Human Rights Campaign and was the winner of the 2020 Illinois NOW Young Feminist Award.

So what’s next for Molly and the Pinta Pride Project?"BG Pride" made out of balloons

According to Carolyn, “This one [Molly] knows who she is, she’s so proud to be the face of this project, and do as much as she can, but she’s a very serious student, and she has plans, she wants to be a vet…but her dad and I, we have really found our life’s calling, and we will throw this parade until we can’t walk anymore…We plan on throwing at least two events every year, the Parade and National Coming Out Day. And really, things kind of happen organically around here. People will be kind of just complaining about something that’s upsetting them, and we’ll throw an event together to combat that. So we kind of go with what the crowd needs.”

The events are one thing, according to Carolyn and Molly, and are full of joy and fun, but it’s really what’s going on behind and around them that matters. “Our proudest thing is being able to connect people,” said Carolyn. To that end, they have also started a parent support group, and they work hard to connect people with other nonprofit organizations that can offer more full-time support for LGBTQ issues. 

We’ll leave you with the advice of the Pintas for those who are not members of the LGBTQ community, and who want to be allies, but aren’t quite ready to throw an entire parade to show their support. “If you’re an ally, it’s not enough to say you’re an ally – find a way to show it every day. Even if it’s just wearing a sticker or a pin that shows you’re a safe person, because every single day, someone who needs to see it will see it.” To them, everything they have done has “been all about visibility” according to Carolyn, about showing up and really seeing others, and wanting to reach out and make that human connection.

This Mental Health Awareness Month, Let’s Find Ways to Support Each Other!

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and we hope this month, as always, you’re doing great! But we also get it if you’re struggling – many of us are after the last couple of years. But there’s also good news: according to a poll conducted by the American Psychiatric Association, almost 70 million adults resolved to find ways to improve their mental health at the end of last year. That’s around a quarter of the adult population! As American Psychiatric Association president Vivian Pender, MD, said in a press release, “To see one in four Americans focusing on their mental health in this moment is important and encouraging.”

So this month, we want to keep this trend going. To that end, we’d like to hear your stories, and we’d also like to highlight some organizations that are working hard to support those living with mental health issues, whether they can be of help to you, or you’re looking for a worthwhile place to donate or volunteer. 

The State of Mental Health in America

While resolutions to work on mental health are indeed encouraging, there are unfortunately still a lot of reasons we need those resolutions. Just check out these statistics: illustration of a person sitting down with sad faces around and the word depression over it

  • Nearly 50 million Americans (almost 20%) are experiencing a mental illness. 4.91% are experiencing a severe mental illness.
  • 9.5% of the adult population is living with a depressive disorder, while 18% of Americans aged 18–54 are suffering from an anxiety-related disorder.
  • 1 in 5 teens suffer from a mental illness, yet many avoid seeking help.
  • Most people living with mental health issues have two or more conditions, like depressive disorder and anxiety.
  • The Mental Health America (MHA) annual State of Mental Health in America report found an increase of 664,000 people from last year’s dataset reporting serious thoughts of suicide.
  • Women in the U.S. are two times more likely to suffer from depression when compared to men.
  • Women attempt suicide more often, but men are four times more likely to die by suicide.
  • Over half of all adults with a mental illness do not receive treatment, totaling over 27 million adults in the U.S. who are going untreated. The percentage of adults with a mental illness who report an unmet need for treatment has been increasing every year. 

These statistics are certainly less encouraging than our resolutions, but we also want to bring you some good news. First, let’s look at some positive mental health trends to look out for this year, and moving forward. 

Moving Forward

Fortunately, mental health is becoming more of a priority in our country, and there is research being conducted into how we can improve mental health services, address racial and socioeconomic disparities, and get to a place where we can all enhance our well-being, starting with our state of mind. The following are just a few positive trends to be aware of:

  • Nearly 61% of adults have experienced at least one traumatic event in their lifetimes, so clinicians, health care practitioners, educators, and mental health professionals are widely embracing a trauma-informed approach to care to address trauma among the broader population. This will mean a more holistic approach to treating mental health issues.
  • Soon you might be able to take a blood test to easily detect a mental health condition like depression. In April 2021, researchers at the Indiana University School of Medicine developed a novel blood test for mental illness, suggesting that biological markers for mood disorders can be found within RNA biomarkers.
  • We will most likely see the continued expansion of telehealth services for mental health. Not only that, but according to Nathaniel Ivers, PhD, department chair and associate professor at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, “Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many mental health professionals now have the training, experience, confidence, and technology to conduct telemental health services effectively and ethically. It also has the potential to increase mental health treatment access to rural and older adult communities.”
  • Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), a non-invasive method of brain stimulation, has been studied extensively in recent years and is being increasingly used to treat certain mental health conditions. As the FDA continues to approve these types of treatments, it could mean help for people whose depression is not improving with traditional methods. 
  • Virtual reality, which has recently been approved as a way to help combat chronic pain, could also become an effective method for treating mental health concerns, since it can help users learn a number of behavioral and cognitive skills to cope with things like stress. 

As we said, the above are just a few innovations to look out for as we all try to improve our mental health. And for now, while we might not have all of these technological advances in place yet, and while we might not even have equal treatment for all, or a way for everyone to access help, there is something we do have. We have a lot of people working very hard for a lot of organizations that are supporting mental health. Let’s take a look at just a few of them.

Organizations Supporting Mental Health

illustration of person lying down and a person sitting next to them
NAMI works to ensure individuals with mental illness live fulfilling, healthy lives.

As we’ve pointed out, a huge number of Americans are living with mental health conditions. But even though mental illness is so common, there is still a lot of misunderstanding and stigma associated with it, and it’s often difficult for individuals to seek the help they need. That’s where mental health charities can step in. Check out the following organizations:

1. National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)

Through advocacy, public awareness, support, and education, NAMI works to ensure individuals with mental illness live fulfilling, healthy lives. They work to help remove the stigma surrounding mental illness and to promote public policy, but they also help people directly through their hotline and help page. In fact, over 50,000 people were able to seek help in 2020 through their toll-free NAMI HelpLine (800-950-6264) alone, and the help page of their website got over 233,000 hits!

2. Mental Health America (MHA)

This organization is all about promoting good mental health for all, with a strong emphasis on prevention, advocacy, and educational programs. One of MHA’s core philosophies is their B4Stage4 Philosophy: “that mental health conditions should be treated long before they reach the most critical points in the disease process,” similar to how we strive to prevent and treat cancer well before Stage 4.

3. Rethink Mental Health Incorporated

Rethink Mental Health Incorporated encourages us all to “rethink” the stigma associated with mental health issues and empower people to get the help they need. They do this through educational programs, as well as advocacy programs that encourage those who are struggling, or who can encourage others to get help, to speak out. Rethink Mental Health Incorporated also has a more creative side, with music and art programs. 

4. Child Mind Institute

Here’s another statistic to throw out there: half of all mental illness occurs before the age of 14, and 75% occurs by the age of 24. That’s why the Child Mind Institute focuses on bettering the lives of children and families of children struggling with mental health and learning disorders. They offer treatment options, as well as support for families and teachers, and conduct crucial research.

5. American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP)

As we noted above, the number of people with suicidal thoughts is increasing every year. But the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention is working hard to change this, by supporting those affected by suicide through research, education, and advocacy, with local chapters in all 50 states. In addition to funding a lot of critical research and hosting local events, AFSP is also currently supporting and funding the 988 crisis response system, which is a new number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (also called just Lifeline) that will be operational nationwide by July 2022. The current number is 1-800-273-TALK or 8255.

6. The JED Foundation (JED)

The JED Foundation’s mission is to protect the emotional health of, and prevent suicide for, our nation’s teens and young adults. They partner with high schools and colleges to help give teens and young adults coping skills by encouraging community awareness, understanding, and action for young adult mental health. They also engage in public policy and advocacy, but it’s their “Seize the Awkward” campaign, which encourages young people to have important (but sometimes awkward!) conversations with each other about their mental health, that really stands out as a unique initiative.

7. The Trevor Project

head puzzle of 4 different colors being put together by a hand
The Trevor Project provides crucial mental health resources for members of the LGBTQ community under 25 years of age.

You might know this organization as one that supports young LGBTQ people – but how do they support them? With a lot of focus on mental health. The Trevor Project provides crucial mental health resources, focusing on issues such as anxiety, depression, eating disorders, substance abuse, and suicide prevention in members of the LGBTQ community under 25 years of age. They have resources like crisis intervention tools, suicide prevention trainings, and other community resources.

8. Shatterproof

Shatterproof is a nonprofit that focuses on how substance abuse and mental illness impact communities across the United States. They seek to end the stigma around substance abuse and help treat and prevent addiction by advocating for policy change at the federal and state level. They also provide educational tools and support for those seeking treatment.

9. Black Emotional and Mental Health Collective

BEAM’s goal is to help remove systemic barriers that often block African Americans from  accessing mental health resources. The nonprofit does this through education, training, advocacy, and the creative arts. In addition to other resources, BEAM has mobile crisis unit services in some states.

10. The National Center for Transgender Equality

While this is a more holistic organization, the National Center for Transgender Equality also offers a variety of resources for transgender mental health issues. 

Through advocacy, research, education, treatment services, and destigmatization, these organizations all work in some way to make life better for those living with mental health issues and their families. Please consider contacting one if you need help, or donating to one if you can afford to do so – you can even make a difference by volunteering! 

The bottom line is, any one of us can go through difficult times, and considering how common mental health issues are, most of us know someone who is even if we’re not. So, this month (and every month), let’s find ways to support each other, and ourselves. Feel good out there!

Bitty & Beau’s: More Than Just a Coffee Shop, Brewing Up Change

What are some of the things you consider essential in your life? Lots of people would rank their morning cup of coffee pretty high on the list, right? But dig a little deeper for a moment and think about some of the essential things that you might sometimes take for granted – not just food, water, shelter, etc, but a sense of dignity and purpose in your life, as well as a feeling that there are opportunities available to you. That’s something that we don’t just crave, but that we need to really thrive. 

Now what if you combined those two things? Sounds like a recipe for perfection – and it’s exactly what Amy Wright, founder of Bitty & Beau’s Coffee has done. So what does coffee have to do with dignity, purpose, and opportunity? Well, it depends on who’s serving it up: at Bitty & Beau’s all of the employees have intellectual and developmental disabilities, and they, as well as the shop, which now has multiple franchised locations, are doing great.

“A Fire Is Ignited in You”

Amy's husband with Bitty and Beau smiling
“I just feel like they’ve made us better people. They’ve made us care about things that we didn’t even know about before.”

Amy Wright and her husband, Ben, feel extremely lucky. Their four children, two of whom (Bitty and Beau) have Down Syndrome, and one of whom is living with autism, are the light of their lives. Not only that, but Wright’s children have also changed the trajectory of her life, and have been the driving force behind her passion to make a difference. Wright put it simply and beautifully in her acceptance speech when she was named the 2017 CNN Hero of the Year: “I would not change you for the world, but I would change the world for you.”

And she told guideposts.org: “I just feel like they’ve made us better people. They’ve made us care about things that we didn’t even know about before. It’s just like an appreciation for humanity. It’s far beyond people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. It’s caring about every life and the value that every person’s life has. When you watch your child go through being marginalized, being discriminated against, being overlooked, a fire is ignited in you. And you start wanting to change the world, not just for them, but for any other group of people that’s ever been marginalized that way.”

But that’s not to say it’s been easy – nothing worthwhile ever is. As Wright told CNN, “When Beau was born, we were thrust into the world of special needs. So, we’ve been trying to advocate in different ways since then, and that intensified after (we had) Bitty. But it’s so hard to get people to change their perceptions. It felt like we were swimming upstream. People are scared of what they don’t know, so that’s why we’ve decided to live out loud and to show people what our lives are like.”

And Wright and her husband didn’t stop at advocating for their own children. When they found out that anywhere between 70% and 80% of adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) are unemployed, they were shocked, and wanted to include as many people living with IDD as they could in their quest to change perceptions. So Ben began hiring people with IDD in his office, and Amy started a nonprofit to help people with IDD get jobs – but she “had hundreds of people who wanted jobs and could barely find an employer who would even give one of them an interview.” But Wright didn’t give up, she simply had to take matters into her own hands and become the employer herself.

“When Your Passion and Your Purpose Collide”

Amy Wright
Amy Wright, founder of Bitty & Beau’s Coffee.

So what would be the perfect venue for the Wrights’ vision to not only create jobs for people with IDD, but also change perceptions and bring communities together? “It hit me like a lightning bolt: a coffee shop!” Wright said. “I realized it would be the perfect environment for bringing people together. Seeing the staff taking orders, serving coffee – they’d realize how capable they are.”

The only issue? The Wrights had no experience running a retail business – but again, Amy wasn’t going to let anything stop her. She talked to people she knew who were coffee roasters and spent hours on the internet researching how to open and run a coffee shop. “We just started drinking from the fire hose. We just had a lot of faith that it would work out. I just believed that it was what we were supposed to do with our lives and it became our passion. When your passion and your purpose collide like that, there’s no stopping you.”

And thus the first Bitty and Beau’s was opened in 2016 in Wilmington, North Carolina (although it was originally just Beau’s Coffee until Beau’s 12th birthday wish was to see his sister’s name “put up in lights, too”) with 20 employees who trained for two weeks to get ready for their new positions. They didn’t need any experience, just a willingness to learn and a dedication to the vision of the shop. The rest Wright took care of, becoming impressively adept (especially considering her lack of retail experience) at matching the right person for the right job. 

“We just kept role playing and practicing until we figured out, ‘Where is this person most comfortable? Where do they feel confident?’ … Hiring people with IDD, it’s really no different than hiring people that are typically-developing. Everybody has talent, everybody has skill sets. It’s identifying what those talents are and finding out the way that you can plug them into your business.”

“Radically Inclusive”red ribbon about to be cut with the bitty and beau shop behind it

The first Bitty & Beau’s location was an instant success, with lines out the door; today they have 23 franchised shops across 12 states, and they have partnered with corporations to open shops in their world headquarters. They also have a range of merchandise for sale, including mugs that say “radically inclusive” and hats that say “not broken.” 

So what’s the secret of Bitty and Beau’s success – why are their coffee shops so popular in a world that can feel a bit oversaturated with coffee shops? It’s partly that people are eager to support the mission of the shop, but it’s also the unique warmth that their shops exude: there’s a greeter at the door (who once upon a time gave hugs), and the staff uses playing cards (instead of the usual mangled name on a cup) to identify customers’ drinks, as well as to help the employees practice their numbers.

Wright made it clear to CNN that the admirable mission behind the shops is one thing, but her employers are what make things work like “a well-oiled machine”: “Every single day, people say, ‘You made my day. Thank you.’ There’s something so pure about our team. They genuinely are happy that you’re there, and they make you feel that way. That’s a feeling most people don’t get anywhere that they go, and I think it’s what draws people back.”

“It’s More Than a Cup of Coffee – It’s a Human Rights Movement”

The profits from Bitty & Beau’s go to Wright’s nonprofit, Able to Work USA, but what the shops are achieving is much more than financial support. First, the jobs that they supply to their local community are about more than just employment. As Wright points out, “Having a workplace that makes you feel proud of yourself and gives you a sense of community is something we all want. For our employees, I feel like it’s the first time they’ve had that…It’s given them purpose and a sense of being valued in ways that we take for granted.”

Second, the goal of Bitty & Beau’s is not to tug at your heartstrings, or make customers feel like they’re being “charitable.” Wright wants her shops to build bridges, so what she hopes is that customers who frequent Bitty & Beau’s will become so comfortable and familiar with people with IDD, that their disabilities are not what they notice or think of when they interact with them. “Creating this has given people a way to interact with people with disabilities that (they) never had before,” Wright told CNN. “This is a safe place where people can test the waters and realize how much more alike we are than different. And that’s what it’s all about.”bitty and beau's employees standing together in the coffee shop

So Bitty and Beau’s goes from strength to strength, breaking down walls as they open up doors to new shops: franchises have just opened in Bethlehem, PA, Charlotte, North Carolina, and New Athens, Georgia. But Amy Wright knows she can’t hire every person with IDD in the country – but then, the goal is for her to not have to do that. The goal is to change minds and make sure everyone is valued and given opportunity, no matter how they are abled. After all, it’s all about respect: “We always say, it’s more than a cup of coffee. It’s a human rights movement; the coffee shop is just a vehicle for making that happen.”

We’ll leave you with Amy Wright’s words to guidepost.org, which seem to perfectly sum up what one radical coffee shop franchise is achieving: “We can’t open enough coffee shops to affect the unemployment rate. We’ll keep trying, but what we can do is change the way people see people with IDD. Once people value people with IDD, the way they do typically-developing people, then all the opportunity will just flow. We hope the big takeaway when people learn about us or experience the shop is that they go away thinking, ‘You know what? That person with Down syndrome, their life has just as much value as mine does and I need to find a way to include and accept them in my society.’”

If you want to know more, find a location, learn about franchise opportunities, or snag some Bitty & Beau’s merchandise, head to their website.

The Fugees Family: Reaching Goals for Refugee Kids

There are some things that are all around us, yet we don’t necessarily see them. For example, if we are lucky enough to live a comfortable life, without ever having had to experience the horrors of war, the heartbreak of having to flee our home, or the struggles of being an outsider in a new country, we might not look around us and see that there are many people in our own communities who have had to deal with all of these things. 

Millions of refugees have been settled in the United States over the last four decades, but it sometimes takes a big news story, like the recent crisis for Afghans, for us to look around and see what has been there all along. This has not been the case for Luma Mufleh, however, who herself left behind the country where she was raised and started a new life in the United States. A chance encounter one day with some children playing soccer in her community led her to found an organization that aims to give a new life to the most vulnerable of all refugees. 

The Fugees Family, which began as a soccer club for refugee children, now not only gives children survivors of war a social way to cope with their trauma, but has grown to become the nation’s only school dedicated to refugee education, and to ensuring that these children can reach their full potential.

Luma Mufleh
Luma Mufleh, founder of The Fugees Family.

“I’ve Experienced Being an Outsider”

Luma Mufleh has always had a personal connection to displaced children: while Mufleh was raised in Amman, Jordan, she is the daughter and granddaughter of Syrian refugees. Not only that, but she herself left behind everything she knew in Jordan after she came out as gay to her parents; they disowned her, and knowing that being gay is considered a crime in Jordan, Mufleh fled to the U.S. to start a new life for herself, and was eventually granted asylum here. 

As she told CNN: “I’ve experienced being an outsider because of having to leave my country and having to start with nothing. So there’s empathy that I have that allows me to relate. When you’ve left your home, your family and everything you know to start new, that is very difficult. You don’t have the education, the language, and you don’t have someone that can broker things for you.”

Mufleh managed to build a life here, despite having to deal with the above unimaginable stresses, as well as the difficulties of what she calls the “broken” immigration system. She finished college and opened a coffee shop – but it was a random wrong turn one day in 2004 that led her to her true calling. 

“This Is the One Place They Get to Be Kids Again”

Mufleh’s wrong turn led her into the parking lot of an apartment complex in Clarkston, Georgia, where a group of young boys was playing soccer with a beat-up ball, some barefoot, using rocks as goal markers. The scene reminded her of home, where she had played soccer in the streets with her brothers and cousins – in fact, Mufleh was one of the only girls who had played soccer at her school in Jordan. She felt drawn to these children, and got out of her car, offering them a nicer ball, and asking if she could join in with them. 

hands on top of each other in a huddle
The Fugees team became more than just a pastime for the children involved, it became sort of a family.

Over the next few months, she continued to play soccer with these boys, who turned out to be refugees from Afghanistan and Sudan, and eventually, the “Fugees” team was born, and began playing competitively in Georgia. This team became more than just a pastime for the children involved (and for Mufleh herself). It became a sort of family and a way to feel part of something, as well as to help boost the mental health of children who had been through so much. After all, the sad fact is that refugees can suffer under the stress of their situation, with anywhere from 4 to 40% dealing with anxiety, 5 to 44% dealing with depression, and 9 to 36% dealing with PTSD, according to psychiatry.org. 

But psychiatry.org also points out that these issues don’t have to be long-lasting, and the Fugees team has had a big effect on the kids involved. As Mufleh (who is a Top 10 CNN Hero for 2016) told CNN: “When you have a kid that has fled their country, has had a horrible experience, comes to this strange country, the one thing they understand is soccer. It’s always been an escape for them…You see kids…who have been struggling for months. And when they come here, their faces light up when they’re on the field. For kids that were robbed of their childhood, this is one place they get to be kids again. They feel comfortable. They feel confident and happy. You see the transformation begin when they’re around a group of kids that have shared similar experiences and they help each other adjust to their new lives.”

“I Had Barely Scratched the Surface”

drawing of a person with their name spelled out and words identifying each letter.
Luma’s mission is “shifting the narrative around refugees away from the current fear-mongering frame to one of courage, resilience, and creative potential.”

But, while the soccer program has meant so much to the kids involved, Mufleh began to realize that it could not solve all of their problems. To start with, they were dealing with the very practical, material issues that come from being forced to flee their home countries to a new place, sometimes with only the clothes on their backs, and almost always with very little education.

As Bethany Letiecq, associate professor of human development and family science at Maryland’s George Mason University, told NPR of refugee families, “If you are a refugee, coming here with very little, English might be limited, job opportunities can be limited, trying to just meet your family’s basic needs can be a full-time job.” In fact, Mufleh recounts a story on The Fugee Family website of a young boy on her soccer team who complained of being hungry one day as she took him home from practice. She thought she would bring him to his house and simply help him get a snack, but instead she found a house with cupboards that were completely bare, despite his mother working as hard as she could to make a life for her child. 

As Mufleh says on the website: “I realized that I had barely scratched the surface. I felt so naive and helpless. Children living less than five miles away were going to bed hungry, because their parents weren’t getting paid enough to make ends meet. This is just one of many experiences with my players that has completely changed the way I see the world.”

“Stellar Performers”

So what could Mufleh do to even begin working toward a solution for these children? The answer to her was education: she realized that they needed to be given a way to reach their full potential, and change their futures. What she saw was not only parents who weren’t getting enough support, but children who weren’t being given the tools they needed to move forward from that situation:

“You’ve experienced conflict. You’ve seen war. You haven’t had food security. Then you get to come to the United States, and you’re super excited. And then you come here, and there’s a rude awakening. Academically, they’re not ready. A lot of the kids have had little or no formal education, and they’re plunked in the age-appropriate class. So you have a kid who’s 14 or 15 and is put into ninth grade and expected to do algebra and read Shakespeare when they don’t know the letters of the alphabet, and they don’t know how to add. So they’re feeling like failures at school.”Luma sitting down with young boys holding books in their handsAnd so the Fugees Academy was born, which educates refugee students, no matter how far behind they are, offering classes for sixth through twelfth grade. As The Fugees Family website points out, the children they serve go from being at risk of “drop[ping] out of school and never learn[ing] English, develop[ing] fundamental academic skills, or identify[ing] themselves as a valuable part of American society” to children who “don’t just catch up – they become stellar performers who can meet rigorous academic standards.” 

In fact, the academy has a 100% graduation and college attendance rate, and sees a 137% and 187% increase in growth targets for math and reading respectively for their 6th and 7th graders. All of this means that the Fugees Academy has become so popular among the refugee community that Mufleh receives nearly three times as many requests for enrollment as she has space and resources. 

“Courage, Resilience, and Creative Potential”

In the last few years, the Fugees Academies have expanded to include a location in Columbus, Ohio, and are hoping to expand their unique model of education nationwide, with Cleveland being the next planned location. The schools integrate soccer into their academic program, because as Mufleh says, “Soccer is the one thing that’s very familiar to them and the one thing that is normal. It reminds them of home,” and the Fugees soccer team is still going strong. picture of many children in graduation gowns sitting down on stairs with Luma in the middle With all of that hard work, the overarching Fugees Family nonprofit has reached more than 1,200 vulnerable kids from more than 22 different countries, “empowering refugee children to use their voices to reclaim and tell their own stories – shifting the narrative around refugees away from the current fear-mongering frame to one of courage, resilience, and creative potential,” as their website says. 

What Mufleh and her organization are doing is bringing a sense of hope, belonging, and faith in the future to children and families who have come to us to find a better life – and she is also facilitating their successful integration into society. As Mufleh pointed out in an opinion piece on Cleveland.com, “With the right support, refugees routinely make incredible strides in America. We are upwardly mobile, more than tripling our household income after 25 years, according to the immigration advocacy research group New American Economy. The communities where we settle become safer; between 2006 and 2015, 9 of the 10 cities with the highest resettlement rate saw their crime rates fall. And nearly 350,000 refugees are essential workers, from health care to the food supply chain.”

But beyond all of that, she’s letting kids be kids, and seeing them for who they are, not just refugees: “They’re just like most kids,” Mufleh notes. “Yes, they’ve had experiences that children typically don’t have. But they have so much to contribute to this country to make it great and to teach us all about how grateful we are to be here.”

If you’d like to learn more, or find out how you can help, head to the Fugees Family website, or to donate, click here.