Let’s talk about it
Written by Emilee Mae Struss
National Suicide Prevention Line: 800-273-8255
Local Text Line: 741741
IT’S TIME. It’s time we talk about mental health. Approximately one in five teenagers (ages 12–18) struggles with at least one mental health disorder. NAMI, National Alliance on Mental Illness, records that nearly one in twenty-five adults in America are currently living with a severe mental illness. There is a strong correlation between the two—adults and youth.
One-half of all chronic mental illnesses begin by the age of fourteen and three-quarters by the age of twenty-four.
“As a community, we can’t look away any longer,” Kristi Westbrock, Smiles for Jake advocate, said.
Smiles for Jake is a nonprofit organization that grew out of tragedy and loss. Jake Haapajoki, a student and avid athlete at Brainerd High School (BHS), was only sixteen-years-old when he took his life on February 21, 2018.
Three months before that, another active youth, Levi Siekas, took his life at his home. He was fifteen-years-old.
The two boys were very active in sports and were good friends. The families, still in shock and grieving the loss of their sons, have chosen to take a stand against suicide and address the root of the issue: mental health.
Individuals, who knew Levi and Jake, said they were both happy, healthy kids. They didn’t overtly show the typical signs that one would assume would appear with suicidal ideation. Smiles for Jake hopes to change what’s possible for those who feel stuck, lost, or alone.
“Our goal is to live in a world where there is so much positivity that no one would feel such intense despair that they would take their own life,” Westbrock said.
The positivity and hope, desired by Westbrook and all impacted by suicide, is here and already making significant waves throughout the community. It started with the BHS students.
Following the loss of Jake, the students at BHS drew a smiley face and started printing it on t-shirts to raise money. Where would the money go? To mental health screenings.
Their goal was to raise $75,000. The students surpassed their goal and were able to expand their mission even further: to talk more openly about mental health.
This mission has now developed into two separate initiatives—one for the community and one for the school. On February 21, 2019, one year after Jake took his life, they relaunched Smiles for Jake in the BHS gymnasium. About 500 people attended, all wearing Smiles for Jake apparel.
“We underestimated what would happen,” Westbrock said. “It just took off really fast and blew all of us away.”
Their philosophy is simple: We can’t sit back anymore, waiting for people to go to the doctor to get help. Westbrock says that Smiles for Jake is diving into the community to get that message across.
“It’s okay to say you need some assistance,” Westbrock said. “The highest demographic for suicide is actually middle-aged white men.”
Smiles for Jake advocates decided to take their mission to the community instead of waiting for the opposite to happen. So, they went to Lakes Jam.
“We went tent to tent and told the story,” Westbrock said. “And then all these conversations started happening.”
The team realized the best way to spread their mission was to simply start a conversation; to share a story.
Once Smiles for Jake developed into a nonprofit, the students at BHS started The Lighthouse Project.
The Lighthouse Project has three main initiatives: to raise funds, promote mental health programs, and represent a beacon of change for other communities.
“When there’s a ship out on the ocean, and it’s foggy, they look for the lighthouse to show them where to go,” Events Coordinator Max Wheeler said, “We want to be that light—that beacon of hope. That’s why we’re named ‘The Lighthouse.’”
Wheeler started with The Lighthouse Project in 2018 as a volunteer. Wheeler is now a senior, along with Altie Danielson, another leader. Wheeler and Danielson focus mainly on the events, while a third leader, Harlee Timmons, takes care of the financial side of the project. An advisory board oversees the three.
“Our greatest accomplishment yet is when we donated $25,000 to Northern Pines [Mental Health Center] that goes towards students who cannot afford counseling and/or medication,” Wheeler said.
Northern Pines is a nonprofit mental health clinic that serves six counties, including Aitkin, Cass, Crow Wing, Morrison, Todd, and Wadena, with offices in Brainerd, Little Falls, Long Prairie, Staples, Wadena, Aitkin, Pine River, and Onamia. Northern Pines, established in 1964, provides a full range of mental health services to people of all ages.
The entire amount raised by The Lighthouse was used up by December of 2019.
“This upcoming year in May of 2020, we hope to donate even more,” Wheeler said.
A second initiative launched by The Lighthouse Project is a partnership with Sources of Strength, which is a training for teachers and students. Sources of Strength has a mission to provide evidence-based prevention for suicide, violence, bullying, and substance abuse by empowering youth leaders and identifying adults who can inspire hope and make an impact in a youth’s life.
“The biggest thing is to talk about it,” said Rick Jackson, Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), Director of Mobile Crisis Outreach at Northern Pines. “Communication is the most important thing.”
Mobile Crisis works specifically with individuals who are suicidal, homicidal, or dealing with some type of psychosis. At the time, Jackson says, their coping skills aren’t enough to deal with whatever is happening in their life.
“We do our best to keep people in the community instead of taking them to the hospital,” Jackson said. “They will be safe in the hospital and maybe see a mental health therapist, but it can be a traumatic experience for them.”
To keep individuals safe and in the community, Jackson said they talk with the parents (if working with a minor) to safeguard all lethal means such as medications remaining in lock-boxes and guns remaining in locked cases. And then, opening up the conversation about what they’re experiencing.
“It can be a scary conversation to have,” Jackson said. “But we know that we have people who can help.”
Jackson is currently pursuing a doctorate in social work and has worked with Northern Pines for fifteen years. He started working in the schools and quickly realized he wanted to work in the home so he could work with families.
“Working in the schools, I could see how difficult it was for some kids to adapt to the school model,” Jackson said. “I wanted to work in the homes because the family dynamic is so different and very important.”
Often, it’s a family member or friend who will notice different behavior that could be a red flag. Jackson says the biggest ones are a change in diet and/or a change in sleeping patterns.
“Teenagers are challenging because they tend to stay up until midnight, sleep in, and their eating is changing all the time.”
Teenagers also tend to isolate themselves more, spending a higher amount of time with friends than with their parents.
“The biggest red flag to look out for is out-of-the-norm behavior that’s not typical for them,” Jackson said. “And just to have a conversation about it if that happens.”
Smiles for Jake, The Lighthouse, and Northern Pines are just a few organizations chipping away at stigma when talking about mental illnesses and mental health.
“When you’re depressed, you see the world through a different lens,” Jackson said. “It’s hard to get out of bed. The biggest thing to know is that even if it doesn’t feel like it, people care.”
Five Ways to Improve Your Mental Health:
1. Take a Deep Breath. Start by closing your eyes and imagine air filling your lungs. Keeping breathing in, filling your lungs to maximum capacity—and then exhale, letting all of it go.
2. Be Grateful. Gratitude is scientifically researched and proven to promote well-being. Gratitude increases happiness. The best way to increase gratefulness is to write down a few things every day that you’re grateful for. Over time, it will become a practice, and that’s where the true long-term benefits are.
3. Focus on One Thing. Being mindful of the current moment allows our minds to release negative thoughts because it now has a new task. Focus on simple tasks like drinking water, walking, or taking a shower.
4. Be Mindful. There are endless resources online for every level of meditative practice. Apps such as Headspace, Calm, and YouTube have short 2-5-minute guided mindfulness exercises that will help you release anxiety and scattered thinking.
5. Reduce Stigma. Seeing a counselor, receiving medication, or discussing the state of your mental being is nothing to be ashamed of. Just like we need to give attention to other forms of healthy living, such as eating right and getting proper amounts of sleep, taking care of your mental health is no different.