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Normal is Overrated: Mental health program for youths to be held Saturday

By Staff | Sep 5, 2019

Students dealing with a mental health issue are not alone nor are they “different.”

That’s the message health officials and teens themselves will share this Saturday at “Normal is Overrated, ” a program for youths looking for support, not judgement.

The event, which began as a project for one high school student, will take place from 8 a.m. to noon at the Collaboratory, 2031 Jackson St. in Fort Myers.

The event is free, but tickets are required.

Fort Myers High School senior Carly McGovern said “Normal is Overrated” has been a year in the making.

“Last September it was kind of one of those crazy ideas . . . what if I did something like this,” the 17-year-old explained.

A student in the IB program at Fort Myers High, McGovern was tasked with organizing a project. Instead of making the project a check list item, she decided to dive deep while really pursuing something she felt passionate about.

“To me that was mental health,” McGovern said, adding that she knew it would become a lot bigger, more involved, and more intimate to tackle such a far-reaching topic.

“I came to the realization that I was going to need some help and go all in with this thing,” she said, adding that after finding the right professionals in the community, the top priority was “by students for students. Our speakers are students. Our social media, website and design is all run by students.”

“Our target audience would be teenagers, but we are open to the public completely; parents, teachers, grandparents,” she said.

She chose mental health because nobody has the luxury of going through their life without being affected by it, either themselves, or someone they know and love. She said it is a topic that has room for improvement, all while opening the conversation and reducing the stigma.

McGovern has dealt with mental health issues. She attended a treatment center for months for an eating disorder. When she returned she became more aware of the stigma and awkwardness that came with conversations, often times stemming from misinformation.

“I saw a need for opening up that conversation and making sure that we are informed and also that this is a safe and relaxed environment and essentially a judgement-free zone,” McGovern said.

The event will feature six local students, all of whom will share first-hand experiences with behavioral and mental health issues. They will also provide information on the additional toll misunderstanding and fear can have on those already struggling.

“I am honestly very excited. I’m so excited for the students that are going to be speaking at the event. They are going to be the faces of the event,” she said.

McGovern said it took a lot of advertising and talking to people to find those students, as well as working with Valerie’s House, which works with students all over Lee County with incredible stories.

“I think I have gained so much for taking this project on. The biggest learning experience is how to take an initiative and learning how to stand up for the things you are passionate about and working hard to make your vision work,” McGovern said. “It has taught me the value of listening to other people. Hearing other people’s stories and supporting them and making sure that they know that they have someone they can go to.”

It’s a project that has taught her that “team work makes the dream work.”

“It’s really been amazing to see people working together for a common cause,” she said.

There have been a number of community partners that have stepped up to make the event successful. Some of those great connections are with Healthy Lee Coalition of SWFL, Kids Minds Matter, Salvation Army and Lee Health as well as Valerie’s House.

“Our collective core, our core group, that has been involved in organizing this is the Fort Myers Progress Panel. Within our group we have a lot of people representing bigger names,” McGovern said.

Lee Health Vice President and Medical Director of Behavioral Health Dr. Paul Simeone said the idea about “Normal is Overrated” stemmed from the Healthy Lee Behavioral Health Committee, which meets every two or four weeks, depending on what is on the table. McGovern’s project was one of interest because it promotes community collaboration around human health issues, he said.

“Everybody got immediately affected by her zeal to help and be part of normalizing mental health issues among adolescence,” he said. “We have got a lot of community support and a lot of sponsors. It has been wonderful, exactly the kind of thing we wanted to do in the community.”

This is huge for the community, as there has been an increasing prevalence of both mental health and substance abuse issues, Simeone said. In Florida, it is particularly problematic because the state ranks last in per capital expenditure for mental health issues.

“When you have that mental health set taking care of adolescence, it becomes very important that the community rolls up its sleeves and becomes a kind of village to help kids better understand what they are going through and feel OK about it, and learn how to talk about it,” Simeone said. “Provide a language for it and help them seek out treatment opportunities, professional and natural occurring therapies, in their community that can help with this.”

That they can provide a forum where kids can talk about their issues, while having a group of experts talking plainly about what is going on, is great, he added.

With that said, when kids talk about traumatic events, they have to make sure they have people in place who can spend a bit of time with them because “nobody goes home until we go home in one piece.”

The Children’s Advocacy Center will provide therapy dogs on site from Beesley’s Paw Prints Pet Therapy, funded by the United Way. Counselors also will be on hand.

Simeone said it’s good to help reduce barriers to care and accept we are all human and we all struggle.

In addition to Simeone, the School District of Lee County School Counseling and Mental Health Services Director Lori Brooks and Lee Health Medical Social Worker Tesharia Folkes will be on hand during the question-and-answer period.

Breakfast will be provided. BuddhaBlends and Mora food trucks will be on site for those who would like to purchase lunch and continue discussions.

McGovern said she does not want to see Normal is Overrated as a one- time thing.

“I think in the long run it can be a great thing to keep in the community and spread to other areas in the state and in the country. I would love to see more Progressive Panels pop up,” she said. “I would love to see someone pick it up from here and keep it going and do it even better year after year. I would love to see this continue and see it grow with other students, so they can have the same experience that I got to have with these connections and organizing this event.”

To register, visit www.eventbrite.com/e/normal-is-overrated-tickets-62118721769 .

Another event, Kids in Crisis: The Youngest Victims, the impact of addiction on children and families, will be held from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 12, at Riverside Church, 8660 Daniels Parkway in Fort Myers.

The event will feature Jerry Moe, national director of the Hazelden Betty Ford Children’s Program.

“It’s a place where we can convene people to have another one of these useful conversations,” Simeone said.

The event is free, but space is limited. Register at www.hazeldenbettyford.org/fl-events.