MAYS LANDING — “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness,” “Be enough for yourself first, the rest of the world can wait,” and “Never lose hope” were just some of the positive notes written in sidewalk chalk by students for their peers outside of Oakcrest High School.

“I think every life is valuable and they need to know they’re not alone,” said 17-year-old Jeireck Santana, of Mays Landing.

With teen suicide on the rise in New Jersey and 1 in 3 students experiencing some type of mental health condition, AtlantiCare-run teen centers at Oakcrest, Atlantic City and Buena schools hosted a Message of Hope awareness event in observance of National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day.

The event had the students create messages of hope in chalk along a well-traveled sidewalk.

“I think that it’s really important to be aware that a lot of people are struggling,” said Jaiden Navratil, 14, of Mays Landing. “It’s really a great thing that the school is open to having this type of thing, because it brings us a little bit closer each time.”

This is the fifth year Buena students participated in the Messages of Hope project, said Cathleen Morris, director of AtlantiCare’s middle and high school teen centers at Buena Regional School District.

Morris said the project started with 2nd Floor, a 24/7/365 youth helpline in New Jersey. Of the 400 students at Buena Regional High School, 165 participated in writing messages this week. There were double that number at the middle school, Morris said.

“The kids really enjoy the event. They like the idea of being able to give a positive message to their peers,” she said.

Morris, a licensed clinical social worker and disaster response crisis counselor, said even within her own family she has heard conflicting ideas about what conversations about mental health are appropriate.

“Kids hear it, so they need to have also the facts about it and that it’s OK to talk about mental health,” Morris said. “If your child had a physical problem, your child would get treatment.”

Morris said the national conversation has come a long way in the last decade, but there is still a long way to go.

“It’s OK for someone else to have the mental health condition, but it can’t be your child,” she said. “The conversation needs to be had that it’s OK.”

Craig Cochran, director of AtlantiCare’s Atlantic City High School Teen Center, said his students benefited from seeing the messages of hope last year, and they would again participate this year.

“I think it was a success on two fronts, one just realizing they’re not isolated in the issues that they face, but also writing a positive word just to give them hope to go through whatever they’re going through,” Cochran said.

He said students are more open now about mental health issues than they have been in the past.

“They are more receptive to being supportive and encouraging,” Cochran said. “We talk a lot about just giving an encouraging word to someone could really mean a lot to them. I’ve seen and heard students do that.”

Amber Harris, the director of Oakcrest’s teen center, said the Message of Hope event was just one of the many ways the Greater Egg Harbor Regional High School District addresses mental health. This year, Oakcrest brought in a mindfulness instructor for students and are modeling ways teachers can approach the topic.

“I think it’s important not just to talk about the symptoms, but ‘What do you do about it?’” Harris said, crediting principal James Reina for the school becoming very open-minded in the last few years. “Silence doesn’t work with this topic.”

Oakcrest student Alexis Mateo, 14, of Mays Landing said she wanted to participate Thursday to spread kindness to those with mental illness and to let them know that they’re not alone.

“With them reading these messages, they can feel better about themselves,” Mateo said.

Contact: 609-272-7251 Twitter @clairelowe

Staff Writer

I began covering South Jersey in 2008 after graduating from Rowan University with a degree in journalism. I joined The Press in 2015. In 2013, I was awarded a NJPA award for feature writing as a reporter for The Current of Hamilton Township.

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