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Youth Mental Health Summit sends powerful message on need for comprehensive system, for reaching out

By Maridith Yahl
NKyTribune reporter

“If you have air in your lungs, you are here for a purpose,” says Kristen Anderson of ‘Reaching you Ministries.’

At the tender age of 17, Kristen attempted suicide by laying on railroad tracks. She was run over by 33 freight cars traveling at 55 mph. She lost eight pints of blood and both legs, but she is alive and well today and sharing her message.

Kristen Anderson (Photo provided)

Anderson was one of three keynote speakers at the 3rd Annual Linking Together Youth Mental Health Summit held last weekend.

Hosted by Hope 4 Boone County, Boone County Schools, and Northern Kentucky Education Council, over 190 participants — consisting of educators, counselors, nurses, and a wide range of professions — gathered to learn and discuss a still taboo topic in our society, mental health.

Hope 4 Boone County began in 2012 to bring together schools and community partners to not only talk about youth mental health but also take it a step further by bringing the community to a call to action, said Kathy Reutman of Boone County Schools and one of the summit’s co-planners.

She says the idea is to “Change the stigma.” It is with great passion and vigor she discusses this topic. A comprehensive mental health system including the state, Boone County Schools, and community partners is an ultimate goal.

Kristen Anderson’s story was shocking and inspiring. It was hard to fathom that within an hour and a half she went from being depressed, not even thinking about suicide, to attempting suicide.

Summit (Photos by Maridith Yahl)

She had lost her grandmother, three of her friends, and another to cancer, and was raped by a friend all before the age of 17.

“Keep reaching out for help until you get the help you need,” Anderson says. She said help might not be there the third or even fourth time you reach out, but it will be there. 

Jill Burdick, a 6th-grade math teacher at R.A. Jones Middle School. was glad she attended the summit. She has personal experiences from her past, including the death of a cousin by suicide.

“I remember the pain that this caused my family and I never want to see other people go through this,” said Burdick.

She doesn’t want to help others “deal” with suicide but to help prevent it.

“Even if students are not feeling suicidal, I see signs of anxiety and attention issues on a regular basis. I feel that students today are far more anxious than when I began teaching 11 years ago,” says Burdick.

Stephen Kavalkovich

Former firefighter and now speaker, Stephen Kavalkovich, almost died of a drug overdose on his parents’ living room floor.

“The longer you hold onto something the heavier it becomes,” Kavalkovich says.

At the age of 10, he experienced his first trauma: his dad lost his job and cried. His dad never cried. From there an attempted assault and the pressures of being a firefighter who responded to New York City during the 9-11 attacks, gradually weighted him down.

“When I wound up with nothing, I found comfort in the one thing that gave me relief,” says Kavalkovich.

That was heroin. 

Now he says that, “As long as you are alive there’s still a chance, there’s still hope. I go to bed in peace at night…I don’t have to run from me anymore.” 

The speakers advocated for education, to break the stigma of depression and mental illness, and encourage change in mental health. All three speakers had traumatic experiences to deal with but had no idea how.

The Memorial Wall

The summit gave the opportunity to learn about many areas of mental health. Suicide, addiction, counseling, sex trafficking, talking about trauma, pathways to resilience, effects of electronics and media on youth, and social-emotional learning were some of the available sessions.

Shared Hope presented an extremely informative workshop, ‘Human Trafficking Awareness and Prevention,’ on recognizing the signs of human trafficking.

Devon Robinson, a Volunteer Ambassador, explained the complex process of trafficking and grooming and the myths and stigma held by those victimized. Most touching was the video testimonial of a brave survivor who told her story. Education is key to knowing what to look for. Advocating for prevention, awareness, and recognition is how the community can get involved to help stop this.

Burdick was impressed by the “Pathways to Resilience in a Stressful World” provided by Melissa Adamchik, MA, LPP, Executive Director, Tristate Trauma Network.

“There is hope for my middle school students who are living a challenging life,” Burdick said. “Even if my students have not yet learned about resiliency, they still can. Resiliency can be taught, learned, and practiced.”

During a Suicide Memory Walk, attendees walked, thinking, and praying for those struggling with mental illness and those who have been lost to it.

Shared hope

Throughout the Summit, a Memorial & Hope Wall was available. Participants were encouraged to write names of loved ones lost “so their names will not be forgotten.”

By the end of the summit, it was filled with messages of hope and remembrances.

Summit organizers hope to move the wall to various locations in Boone County. 

The organization, Missing and Exploited Children, has a theme: “You don’t have to know everything, just tell us what you do know.”

This profound statement can be used across the board for all mental health issues. Just say something, it may save someone’s life.

The message of hope was abundant throughtout the Summit: Educate yourself. Advocate. Talk. With all of this, the stigma can change. 

Boone County Schools’ Kathy Reutman speaks

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