by Doug McClure
HARDWICK – Recent Hazen Union graduate Lucas Whitaker will host a community discussion on mental health and youth suicide this Saturday from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. at Atkins Field. The event is free and will have baked goods and other refreshments available for a donation, with proceeds going to the National Alliance on Mental Illness Vermont chapter.
Whitaker said that Vermont’s suicide rate is higher than the U.S. average, so he organized this event with a group of “students, teachers, and professionals” to continue to keep a focus on youth mental health and suicide prevention.
“I want it to be kind of a discussion so people can share their stories. To just bring awareness to the topic, talk about youth suicide prevention, and then open up the floor for people who just want to talk about it. People can ask questions about what they can do to help further promote awareness and reducing the risk of suicide [among] youth.”
Whitaker said he spoke with Lieutenant Governor Molly Gray last week to share his concerns, as well as sending emails to state representatives in hopes that some will participate.
Whitaker has been an outspoken advocate for improving students’ mental health from his first days at Hazen Union in 2019. He won second place in Sen. Bernie Sanders’ “State of the Union” Essay Contest in 2020, writing about youth mental health access and suicide. Shortly after arriving at Hazen Union, he, like the entire community, was rocked by the death of Finn Rooney.
The next major hit to kids’ mental health was COVID. Whitaker did not take well to the school’s remote learning programs, and suddenly a whole slate of activities and events he’d been looking forward to was wiped away. A very good friend who was an exchange student had to go back to their country.
“School was horrible. We just were using this new online format, and I didn’t even know Zoom existed until this happened. I didn’t get to see my friends. I didn’t get to speak to people in person. I didn’t get to follow through with any of those events. Everything I was really looking forward to just stopped. I was stuck at home. I couldn’t go to chorus rehearsals, I couldn’t go to theater.”
Even the interview he was supposed to have with Senator Sanders due to the contest was canceled. Another major experience also was postponed, a State Department overseas program, YES Abroad. Whitaker is leaving for Bulgaria shortly under that program, a year late, which is the reason for his urgency in making this event happen. He will have to quarantine for two weeks before leaving.
“It’s my last chance to do something for my community before I go. All of the students leave for college the next week. I have wanted to do something for Hardwick for mental health awareness and suicide prevention for a long time now. I was talking about doing something last summer at the beginning of 2020. Then we had lock-down, and there was nothing I could do at that point.”
He has a personal experience of finding mental health support in previous schools absent.
Whitaker said, “I have a background really struggling with mental health. I’m in a good place now and I have been for a while, but I am also a suicide attempt survivor myself. And I know how it feels to be really scared and really feel like you’re alone. And I wouldn’t want anyone to feel that way.”
He said in previous schools, “nobody really spoke about mental well-being and how to take care of yourself,” which for Whitaker meant he had nowhere to turn. “People always spoke about physical health, and we had gym class every day. They would do those things, but never ask, ‘how are you feeling?’ Or for people that come from abusive homes, ‘How are things at home?’ I really do believe that if there had been more people that made an effort to check up on other people, then maybe I wouldn’t have been in such a bad place, and other people wouldn’t have either.”
He said that in eighth grade he went to his principal and suggested an assembly for suicide prevention.
“I didn’t feel that I had a voice. I felt like because I was a kid, nobody wanted to hear what I had to say. Nobody thought I had anything to say because I’m not as old as them, and therefore I can’t know nearly as much as they do.”
Whitaker said a concern he has is, now that he’s graduated, is “who’s going to continue pursuing this [subject] when I’m no longer here? So, I really hope that this thing that I’m doing next Saturday kind of inspires some people.”For more information about the event, email Whitaker at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (925) 409-5444.