Some of the looks were a bit nervous, others more gung-ho, but in the end there were smiles.
Those were smiles about, of all things, supporting teens with mental health issues and working to further break the stigma surrounding mental illness.
For almost two hours last week students and staff at Seymour Community High School were given mohawk haircuts as part of the nationwide 1 Million Mohawks For Mental Health Challenge, a hairstyle and social media-driven project aimed at supporting, and talking about, teen mental health issues.
Some students went full on mohawk, a small pile of hair collecting at their feet. Others opted for the less permanent styled mohawk that, sans clippers, arranged their hair into a representation of the haircut, some adding color to the mix.
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Either way, participants hoped to send a message to others in the school and community.
“I had half of my head shaved to raise awareness for mental health, what’s going on underneath the haircut,” said Nikki Brunette, a senior from Seymour. “There’s still a lot of stigma.”
Brunette, who said she is bi-polar, was heartened by the show of support by other students.
“We’re from a small town and it’s not really a prevalent issue most of the time, but Seymour over the last few years has really been starting to bring more awareness to mental health and it’s awesome and amazing to see,” she said.
The You Rock Foundation is the force behind the challenge. Its creators include Joseph Penola, Jesse Heffernan, and Anthony Alvarado. The foundation uses interviews with rock musicians to continue the conversation about mental health.
Alvarado is one of the founders of Appleton-based Rise Together, an organization focused on helping young people navigate teen-related issues, including drug use, bullying and teen mental health.
“We want to create a dialogue so people can not only talk about mental illness but mental health … If you even talk about how important that is, it can create a situation where you can have better relationships with your friends, family members, and live a healthier life,” he said. “We know the stigma that surrounds mental illness, and addiction, is causing people to suffer and in our world silence equals death.”
The campaign started May 1 and is expected to run through the summer.
“We figured if we could create an awesome way to talk about mental health and addictions, we can save lives,” Alvarado said. “The dialogue needs to exist and people need to find support and help, they also need to be comfortable to do that.”
Amie Secor, a counselor at the high school, said mental health is an important topic of discussion in the district that affects students directly and indirectly through family members and friends.
“Just talking about it is really important,” she said. “Like all schools we have kids who contemplate suicide and we want them to know that if they are struggling with mental health to know there are things they can do to get help rather than looking at that as an option.”
Casting mental health in the light of something fun, a mohawk, can make a difference, Secor said.
“It shows we’re all supporting one another, we’re all here together, and it brings us together as a school,” she said. “I think this is a really great end of the school year showing that ‘Yep, we’re all in this together.’”
The school offered two days of in-school mental health clinics this year and expects to add a district social worker next year.
Hair will grow back, but Brunette said she thinks something like the 1 Million Mohawks challenge can have a lasting impact.
“It gets people talking and thinking,” she said. “It’s fun and creative, you don’t really see school kids shaving or styling their heads into mohawks every day.”
And her new look?
“It’s a change, very much a change,” she said with a laugh. “It’s very fluffy. I like it.”