Speaking up for Mental Health Awareness Month

May 12, 2016

Chloe, a student at Reynolds Middle School, came before the board to share how art therapy has helped her through hard times.

The board of commissioners Thursday proclaimed May as Mental Health Awareness Month in Multnomah County.

The annual event, started in 1949, raises awareness of mental health in hopes of freeing people to talk about their mental illness and learn how they can help themselves and others.

“We still have a lot of work to do,” said Commissioner Judy Shiprack, who brought forward the proclamation. “But we are making progress towards building a mental health system, one recognizing the dignity and worth of individuals with mental illness.”

David Hidalgo, the county’s mental health director, encouraged people to tell their stories. The person listening might recognize those symptoms in herself, or someone she loves. She might seek help, or help a loved one. Or, perhaps, simply feel compassion.

“Mental illness is a condition like any other health condition,” Hidalgo said. “And it should be treated as such.”

Multnomah County provides mental health services for adults, families and kids, including by placing mental health consultants in the county’s school-based health centers and at SUN community schools.

More than 20 students from Reynolds Middle School attended the meeting. They were preparing for an art opening at the Lincoln Building in downtown Portland, where their self-portraits and personal journal entries would go on display.

Commissioner Judy Shiprack (right) brought forward Thursday's proclamation.

They also came to support their classmate, 13-year-old Chloe, who sat before the board.

Chloe told commissioners how, during class one day last year, she pushed up her sleeves. Her teacher noticed cuts on her arms and offered to help. Her father, too, encouraged Chloe to get help. And she did. Along with other 7th and 8th grade girls struggling with their mental health issues, Chloe began meeting weekly with an art therapist.

They learned how to use art and creative writing as a healthy outlet for their fears and emotions. But it was more than that; it gave her a new  strength.

“We have important stories to tell, and by sharing our stories we can encourage other students to do same,” she said. “And we can show adults that we can make positive changes in our lives. We can use art to change ourselves and our world.”

Because mental health isn’t just about focusing on illness, but about recognizing strength. She invited the commissions to join her and her classmates for the opening of the new exhibit.

“Chloe, I was so inspired that you were able to tell that story,” Commissioner Loretta Smith said after the girl finished telling her story. “You are a beautiful, articulate, intelligent, poised middle schooler. I don’t think I would have had the courage to come up and just say hello when I was in middle school.

“Do not ever doubt that your world will get better. Keep doing what you’re doing, darling,” she said. “You look and sound like you’re going to have a bright, bright future.”