Depression. Drug abuse. Suicide. They’re topics that few people find pleasant or easy to discuss.
But these were the focus of the first State of Mind conference of 2017, held Feb. 4 at Mary, Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Sammamish.
The conference series, now in its fourth year, is put on by Swedish Medical Center Issaquah, the Issaquah Schools Foundation’s Healthy Youth Initiative, the Issaquah School District PTSA and the city of Issaquah’s Youth Advisory Board. The panels shed light on critical issues affecting today’s youth, such as mental illness, conflicts with peers both online and in person, pressures to succeed and the effects of drugs, alcohol and cigarettes.
Seattle Police Detective Shannon Anderson gave Sammamish Police Chief Michelle Bennett’s keynote address on cyberbullying, as the chief was absent due to medical issues. Bennett had prepared a Power Point presentation on how to identify and combat cyber-bullying.
“Cyberbullying has become a public safety issue,” Anderson said. “Things can happen to even the most vigilant parents and vigilant kids.”
According to Bennett’s presentation, the most important actions to take if one believes he or she is being cyberbullied is to save all evidence, avoid responding emotionally and contact authorities if there is any assault, harassment or extortion.
Anderson said that cyberbullies say things that they would not have the courage to say in a face-to-face conversation because the computer screen provides a shield.
“Cyberbullying is easy — it’s anonymous,” she said.
Andrea Frost, a drug and alcohol counselor at Youth Eastside Services, taught attendees about the dangers of electronic cigarettes, commonly known as e-cigarettes. She said that a common misconception about e-cigarettes is that because they vaporize liquid instead of creating smoke, they are not harmful.
“This really is an epidemic among youth because the perception of harm is not that high … but safer doesn’t equal safe,” she said.
In actuality, Frost explained, ingredients in e-cigarettes include liquid nicotine, propylene glycol, vegetable glycerin and flavoring, and the process of vaporizing these ingredients creates the chemical formaldehyde.
“That is a statistic that we have to get out — it has been proven,” she said.
Former Sammamish Deputy Mayor John James was startled by the statistics and said that “at minimum, legislation needs to be enacted” to make e-cigarettes available to only those 21 and older.
Skyline seniors Erika Kumar and Meghan Hennedy delivered a presentation on the stigma of mental illness among high school students, and stressed the importance of telling a parent or counselor if a student notices symptoms of mental illness in him or herself or in a peer.
“You want to definitely be accepting of all mental illnesses and not just the ones that seem easiest to deal with,” Hennedy said.
Ligaya Peterson, Lotte Torgersen and Lorna Gilmour of the Issaquah School District’s Equity Committee and Marisol Visser of the Issaquah School Foundation’s Cultural Bridges for Education Program related their stories of immigrating to America and led a discussion with students and parents about the difficulties that students from other cultures face at school, from differences as simple as bringing different foods to lunch than their peers.
Visser said that for immigrant students who are torn between honoring their family’s cultural practices and fitting in with their classmates, “it’s like living a double life.”
“You don’t realize that social norms are thought at the elementary school level … As immigrants you want to be part of the American system, to blend in,” said Gilmour, who is the dean of students at Clark Elementary School.
The solution, the women agreed, is to open up the discussion about diversity and encourage acceptance and appreciation of all cultures. Torgersen said it’s important to “allow everyone to bring their whole self to school instead of editing.”
“We want to see culture as an asset and a value to our community,” Peterson said.
Barb de Michelle, the program director for the Issaquah School Foundation’s Healthy Youth Initiative, said after the conference that “these kinds of events make a big difference” in the lives of students and parents.
“It’s just the fact that we’re talking about it because in many households, it’s not a topic people bring up,” de Michelle said. “What we’re trying to do is de-mystify mental illness, make sure people are aware of it and know what they should do to get help.”