Wilton High School junior Julia Morneau is taking bold steps to advance the cause of mental health awareness and remove the stigma around mental illness in Wilton Schools. Her bravery in stepping forward has initiated Mental Health Awareness Week, an effort across all four schools in the district. Working with administrators at the high school as well as at the district level, Morneau has helped create something groundbreaking for Wilton students.
Her passion and dedication to the topic of mental health is rooted in her own experience. Morneau was diagnosed with ADHD, anxiety, and depression when she was just 6 years old.
“I faced many challenges due to the lack of education and the stigma around mental illness–and still face them. I struggled a lot with peer relationships and academics, but the help I received from my parents, teachers, therapists, and more helped me become the person I am today. I am passionate about medicine and have overcome many obstacles academically thanks to the help of my teachers when I was younger,” Morneau says.
Last year she was inspired to start her own foundation for mental health awareness, called Little Minds. She began in February 2017, and launched her own website over the summer. It has the tagline, “Educating communities on Child & Adolescent mental health.”
“I completed extensive research about each mental health disorder because I wanted my website to also be a resource that people can go to to receive accurate information on each mental illness,” Morneau explains. Her website quotes a statistic that while approximately 20% of the youth population has a diagnosable mental illness, only 5% receive a diagnosis. That statistic is also a motivating factor.
“I hope that I will be able to use the knowledge I have gained through personal experiences and research on mental illness to inform the community on the importance of mental health, as well as letting kids know they are not alone.”
Morneau has motivation that’s even closer to home. Her younger brother faces similar situations that she did at his age.
“He struggles with similar things I did–being left out, struggling academically–and I didn’t want him to feel the same way that I did when I was put down and excluded because of mental illnesses.”
Morneau approached the administrators with the idea of a mental health awareness week and has been planning it since last July. She started working closely with Andrea Leonardi, Wilton’s assistant superintendent of special services, who was incredibly impressed with Morneau’s dedication.
“Little did I know that in my first days in the Wilton Public Schools I would meet a person so well-suited to change the world! Julia had a vision and a dream to bring awareness of mental health issues to the students, faculty, and staff of the Wilton Public Schools. Over the course of the year she worked tirelessly to gather age and developmentally appropriate content and create opportunities to bring this information to our learning community. From Miller-Driscoll to WHS she is engaging our learners and bringing information to the community that is creating understanding and empathy,” Leonardi says.
Kim Zemo, the district’s safe school climate coordinator, says watching Morneau champion this cause in the schools has been awe-inspiring.
“Personally, it has been inspiring and rewarding to assist her in her efforts to help bring her vision to fruition. As educators fully invested in school climate and the wellness of students, we are especially gratified to see such a grassroots effort arising from student initiative, passion and perspective. Julia has raised the bar for all of our efforts in promoting awareness to erase the stigma,” says Zemo.
Morneau says it has been a lot of work, but she’s grateful that the hard work paid off as Mental Health Awareness Week starts. “I love what I do and I am so thrilled that Wilton schools are working to break the stigma,” she says.
One event is already in the books–the Wilton High School Mental Health Gallery Art Show opened last week in the main lobby of the school. The exhibit showcases hundreds of pieces of artwork and creative writing created by students around the theme of mental health. The works were created by students in over 12 art classes including graphic design, advertising, photography, drawing, painting, and more.
“I was stunned by the images and the writing of our students. The information shared by Julia sent a powerful message of understanding, compassion and most of all, optimism. I could not be more proud to congratulate Julia on a job well-done–she is a leader!” Leonardi attests.
Planned Mental Health Awareness Activities in Wilton Schools
During this awareness week, Miller Driscoll 2nd graders will watch Disney’s Inside Out, which conveys the message that we can’t live without both joy and sadness. K-2 will observe national child mental health awareness day on Thursday, May 10 by wearing green to school to compete for extra recess!
Kids will sign a banner on Friday, May 11 during the school day that integrates the 3 R’s of the school (respect, responsible, and ready to learn):
- We are Respectful to anyone facing a challenge, whether we can see it or not.
- We are Responsible as Miller Driscoll Students to guide and support our classmates through their challenges.
- We are Ready to Learn more about mental health and make Miller Driscoll an open environment to talk about mental health!
The banner will be hung up in the school after the awareness week.
Each student will receive a wristband at the beginning of the awareness week!
On Monday, May 7, all Cider Mill students will watch a 2-minute video created for elementary school students about mental health and the stigma mental illness sometimes carries.
On Tuesday & Wednesday, May 8 & 9, Cider Mill students will create their own paper “shoes” to hang up on the doors outside their classrooms. This sends the message that we all have different shoes that walk on different paths, and on these paths we face different obstacles. It is important that we support each other on these paths and respect each others struggles.
On Thursday, May 10, Cider Mill Students will dress up in green for no homework!
They will sign a stigma-free pledge banner with the 3 R’s that’s similar to the one signed by Miller-Driscoll students. The banner will be hung in the front of the school until next year.
On Friday, May 11, students will watch the video they watched on Monday and reflect on what they’ve learned since then with their class after the whole awareness week.
Every student will also get a wristband.
Each day a celebrity will be recognized for their accomplishments in the face of mental health struggles. Each team in each color will have a board where a picture of the celebrity will be hung up each day as they are introduced. It is the goal that at the end of the week teams have a collage of celebrities who have overcome mental health challenges. Sticky notes will be placed near the board with pictures of the celebrities for students to write notes about the accomplishments of that person and stick them around the photo on the board. During morning announcements, a few sentences will be read about this person.
During lunch this week, students will have the opportunity to sign the stigma-free pledge from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). This pledge consists of three steps to ending the stigma–educating yourself and others, seeing the person (not the condition), and taking action.
After signing the pledge, students will receive a sticker that they can put on their computer, phone, backpack, etc., that shows others they are someone who is committed to ending the stigma and also available to help anyone struggling with mental health issues.
Wilton High School
In addition to the art exhibit, students also took a survey about mental health and mental illness; and during Mental Health Awareness week they will go over their answers and discuss the results in advisory