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Morgan County students promote Mental Health Fest

From left, Brewer sophomore Alaina Smith, Morgan County Mental Health Services Coordinator Janice Vest and Brewer freshman Maddie Brooks are active in Morgan County Schools’ Mental Health Fests. [COURTESY PHOTO]
By Audrey Johnson

For the Enquirer

Two Brewer High School students are on a mission to spread awareness about mental health struggles and solutions in their community after their own experiences with anxiety and loss.

Sophomore Alaina Smith and freshman Maddie Brooks have helped students around their county feel comfortable talking openly about depression, grief and life after COVID-19. The pair helped plan Morgan County Schools’ “Mental Health Fest,” an initiative from the district that promotes mental health awareness, and have traveled across the district speaking to students.

“I feel like the kids really respond to them because they are the same age, and they are so open about their own struggles,” said Morgan County Schools Mental Health Services Coordinator Janice Vest. “It just opens the door and removes that stigma. It’s been a blessing.”

May is mental health awareness month, and Morgan County’s Mental Health Fest will travel to each school in the county. The event includes time for students to learn coping skills, connect with their peers and share their experiences with mental health challenges they might be facing.

The district hosted its first Mental Health Fest last year at Veterans Park in Priceville after the Alabama State Department of Education made a push in mental health services for schools during the 2020-21 school year. The department offered $40,000 in grant money for school districts to fund a mental health services coordinator, like Vest.

Smith and Brooks agreed that when COVID-19 disrupted schools, it negatively impacted the mental health of their friends and classmates.

“We used to go out, be super social and talk to everybody,” Smith said. “Once COVID happened, you were guarded behind a screen. We lost all that interaction, and our self-esteem and confidence went down.”

Brewer High School kicked off the first Mental Health Fest of the year for Morgan County Schools students on April 21.

“Really it was better than I could have imagined,” said Brewer assistant principal Brooke Hudson. “The students really got involved. It was really great to see everybody participating.”

The Mental Health Association attended and talked with students while they played cornhole and “chalked the walk” outside. Inside, students wrote down affirmations on sticky notes and gave them to friends, classmates and teachers.

Brooks recalled one teacher’s door was completely covered in kind notes. Students knew his father was ill.

“I think for our kids it normalizes the fact that we all go through things and realize they’re not alone,” Hudson said. “By promoting mental health and positive mental health, then they see that as teachers, as administrators, we’re here to support them too.”

Brooks includes grief in her presentations on mental health. Her older brother, Chance Brooks, died in a car accident last July.

“Especially with talking to people in our school, I wanted to help kids coping with loss,” the Brewer freshman said. “It’s something I didn’t know how to do.”

Smith and Brooks met in a family and consumer science class. Their teacher, Danita Lindsey, encouraged the pair to interview Vest for a class project researching student mental health. When Vest met the two, she knew they needed to be in front of students.

Topics like vaping, longer time spent on screens and cyberbullying appear in the pair’s talks as side effects of mental health struggles.

“Friends have told me their screen time has gone down, or that they stopped vaping because we really did bring attention to the pain it was causing them,” Smith said. “They’ve said stopping has created overall well-being and so much more happiness in their lives. I think that was one of the best things I could have heard from them.”

Judges for the Family, Career and Community Leaders of America (FCCLA) awarded Smith and Brooks first place at the Alabama Students Taking Action with Recognition competition in Montgomery. One judge invited the pair to speak at Arab High School before they travel to compete at FCCLA nationals in Colorado.

“I am so proud,” Vest said. “Before they first interviewed me, I had no idea I was going to have them speak at all these schools, and I was going to get them so involved in all the Mental Health Fests