By Catherine Godbey
Written in a rainbow of colors, messages of hope, love, acceptance and understanding adorn the sidewalks and parking lots of area schools, nonprofits and businesses.
Created by everyone from elementary school students to fitness instructors to bank executives, the chalk-drawn messages include the sayings ‘Tomorrow needs you’, ‘It’s OK to not be OK’ , “You are not the only one”, “You don’t have to fight in silence” and “You are enough.
“When people are coming and going from the ballparks or shopping at the stores or the bank, we want them to see these messages on the sidewalk and feel uplifted and know that talking about mental health is OK,” said said Susan Claborn, director of the Morgan County Mental Health Association.
To help spread this message, the Mental Health Association has partnered with the Mental Health Center of North Central Alabama and Decatur Morgan West to organize the Let’s Chalk About Mental Health initiative.
The awareness program, held in coordination with Mental Health Awareness Month in May, encourages individuals to decorate the community with positive messages and designs.
“Not only are the posts good for people to see, but the very act of getting out there, being creative, and doing a chalk drawing is good for your mental health,” Claborn said.
In Morgan County, the designs and messages can be seen at schools, banks, parks, churches, fitness centers, insurance companies and non-profit organizations. Morgan County Schools are one of the most active participants in the initiative with schools in Eva, Lacey’s Spring, Danville, Trinity, Priceville and Falkville.
“I was so excited when we found out about Let’s Chalk About Mental Health,” said Janice Vest, Mental Health Services Coordinator for Morgan County Schools. “It’s a positive way to let kids and parents in the community know how important it is to talk about mental health. The kids are really struggling right now. We need it.”
Vest hopes the chalk messages will help ease the stigma around mental health.
“In our time with social media, where kids see and hear that they are not enough and that they need to be different and better, these chalk messages are very important,” Vest said. “It’s important for their self-esteem and their mental health. It’s a way of showing them and telling them that we care about them.
With the recent pandemic, which has made schools virtual, students need mental health support more than ever, Vest said.
“COVID really triggered. Many children have stayed home, many are behind in their schoolwork, and some have failed. Many of them began to have anxiety about going back to school. There were so many different negative effects of them coming home,” Vest said. “You see it at all levels. I’ve dealt with first-graders who showed anxiety and stress.
Claborn, who has served as director of the Mental Health Association for the past four years, said the stigma surrounding mental health has diminished since COVID began.
“There is still some stigma, but man, let’s talk about it more. COVID has really brought it to light. You have children who talk about it because of the experiences they have had. And you have adults talking about it. Consider what healthcare workers have been through and business owners facing inflation and shortages. We’ve all been impacted, in one way or another, mentally ill,” Claborn said.
For people struggling with mental health issues, including depression and anxiety, the Mental Health Association hosts peer-led support groups every Tuesday at 6 p.m. and offers “Mood Crew” booklets that encourage families and children to talk about emotions. The nonprofit organization also provides financial assistance for mental health medications.
“People can usually find help with medication for physical issues, like diabetes and blood pressure. It’s harder to find help for mental health medications because people, unfortunately, don’t classify them as necessities,” Claborn said. For more information, visit mhainmc.net.
Along with Let’s Chalk About Mental Health, schools in Morgan County recognized Mental Health Awareness Month with a Mental Health Fun Walk and Wellness Fair on Saturday. The event featured a color blast, bubble wars, music, games and soothing exercises.
“We wanted to make this event fun so people associate mental health with fun rather than something you shouldn’t talk about,” Vest said. “Since it has become such a problem for so many people, we have to make it normal to talk about it. Everyone will experience some sort of mental health type issue, whether it’s stress or anxiety, at some point.