While mental illness and mental health are rarely dinnertime conversation topics, these issues affect almost all of us in some way. Did you know that nearly 20% of American teens and adults demonstrate mental health issues? That's right, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, in 2015 there were approximately 43.4 million adults in the United States with any mental illness within that year and "just over 20 percent (or 1 in 5) children...have had a seriously debilitating mental disorder." With numbers that staggering, and impacts rippling out throughout a lifetime, San Mateo County Libraries felt we had to do something to help increase awareness of the issue and solutions.
We teamed up with the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) of San Mateo County to figure out how we could engage our community to respond to this epidemic in a meaningful way. Realizing that mental illness is best addressed when it first manifests, and that half of our population develops the condition by age 14 and three quarters by age 24, we decided it would be best to focus our efforts on middle and high school youth and that the San Mateo County Young Adult Novelist Convention (YANovCon) would be the ideal vehicle to promote this initiative.
Leading up to the convention, we challenged youth to write a short story that helps readers empathize with a character with mental illness. We were excited to see twenty-four 6th-12th graders submit quality stories given this unusual writers' challenge. Library staff and participating authors scored the stories, and winners got to read their short stories after the opening panel of the convention.
This opening panel was moderated by Rebecca Bucher, a Health and Wellness Coordinator with the San Mateo Union High School District, and included Rocio Cornejo, a mental health advocate and suicide survivor, as well as three young adult authors who have focused on teen mental health issues in their works, Ann Jacobus, Neal Shusterman, and Stephanie Kuehn. In case you missed it, the entire panel was filmed by the Millbrae Community Television and is available on YouTube. Following the opening panel and throughout the day, we encouraged participants to share their message of support for those suffering from mental distress on an oversized poster. After YANovCon, the poster found a new home at the Belmont Library, where teens continued to add their thoughts and feelings.
That wasn't the only poster to come out of the event, though; we also sponsored the Teen Mental Health Poster Contest with the theme "you are not alone." Thanks to the support of school art and digital media teachers, over seventy youth from 7th-12th grade submitted entries. To celebrate Mental Health Month, the winning posters, selected by representatives of NAMI of San Mateo County and SMCL staff, are going up in library branches, schools, and community partner organizations throughout the county. And we are excited to share these posters with the public! If you would like to display one of our winning posters at a location where it can help teens who may experience mental health issues, please let us know.