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Feeling under-resourced, Catoctin High freshmen lead the charge in mental health awareness

Frederick News-Post - 3/9/2020

Mar. 9--Two freshmen at Catoctin High School are leading the charge in increasing mental health awareness among their peers.

Lexi Flohr and Kristen Felichko decided to start the Mental Health Awareness Club (MHAC) at their school earlier this year after feeling frustrated by the lack of discussion on the subject.

They said many students at Catoctin High struggle with mental health issues but don't talk about it. They wanted to start the club to raise awareness and reduce the stigma.

"We thought it would be nice if there was a group that didn't provide a therapy but provided a service for people to talk about that stuff," Felichko said.

Taylor Laumann, a senior at Catoctin High, was one of the first students to join the group.

"I joined because I feel like especially around here, we're kind of in like a rural area and there is a lot of stigma," Laumann said. "Because we're up in the mountains, there are a lot of people with old-fashioned values ... and because of that it's really hard for people to talk about anything."

Sam Wilt is the school social worker for Catoctin High and the club's adviser. She began working at the school in September and said she was surprised to see how extensive the mental health issues are in the school and community.

"I have lived in Frederick for the past three years and had no idea the extent of the issues in even just Thurmont until I started here," Wilt said. "It kind of just stays up here in a bubble."

One reason for that is the lack of resources in the northern part of the county, Wilt said. A lot of mental health resources and events are in the city of Frederick, she said, and that dissuades northern county residents from seeking help.

"We have these really great substance abuse groups downtown in Frederick a half-hour away. ... When there's poverty and families don't have transportation, they don't have health insurance, they don't have all of these resources ... it's not going to happen," Wilt said.

In 2018, the National Institute of Mental Health conducted a webinar series titled "Mental Health and Rural America: Challenges and Opportunities," that said more than 60 percent of rural Americans live in mental health professional shortage areas and get their mental health services from a primary health care provider.

More than 90 percent of all psychologists and psychiatrists work exclusively in metropolitan areas and for most rural Americans the mental health responder in their community is a law enforcement office, according to the webinar.

Additionally, 19.1 percent of residents in non-metropolitan communities have mental health issues, according to 2018 data collected by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. And 4.9 percent of those people had suicidal thoughts during the year.

Mental health is not only an issue for those in rural communities, though. It seems to be an issue across the county for high school students. The Board of Education has consistently ranked it a high priority, and many candidates for student member of the board ran on the platform of increasing mental health resources for students this year.


This club is just to basically show that hey, you're accepted no matter what, and there are ways to cope and bring some joy back into your life. -- Taylor Laumann, Catoctin High senior

Felichko said high school students are under a lot of pressure from school and their families to meet expectations. This leads to high levels of stress and anxiety and sometimes even depression.

Felichko also said she feels that sometimes, there is a lack of understanding from the older generation.

"We live in a different time and a whole different generation and things are changing, and they're living still by the rules of their time," she said. "It's just the expectation that we're going to stay the same and live on to what they created."

Wilt said she hopes the club can work within the community to address some of those gaps and issues.

Their first big project is already set -- the Be Kind to Your Mind 5K, which will be held in May at Thurmont Community Park.

Felichko and Flohr said they hope the 5K will get more people involved and build a better understanding around mental health. At school, though, the word seems to already be spreading.

The club had their first meeting recently, and the number of students who attended was more than either Flohr or Felichko had expected.

Sixteen students have joined the club, and according to Wilt, more are joining every week.

Laumann said the existence of the club is so important for those who are struggling.

"There are a lot of people who don't really know why they have a mental illness and it makes them feel awful about themselves," Laumann said. "This club is just to basically show that hey, you're accepted no matter what, and there are ways to cope and bring some joy back into your life."

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