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UMich community discusses mental health at GenMH conference

Generation Mental Health (GenMH), an organization dedicated to promoting mental health care as a universal right, concluded its third annual “Youth Advocating for the Future of Mental Health” conference Sunday afternoon after two days of virtual and in-person programming. included.

Both days of the conference consisted of keynote speeches, panel discussions and interactive workshops. The first day of the program was completely virtual and was open to the public so participants could attend from anywhere in the world. Sunday’s sessions, held at the Michigan League, marked the first time in the conference’s three-year history that organizations and mental health advocates in Ann Arbor were able to come together in person for the event.

At the in-person portion of the conference, several booths were present for attendees to connect with representatives from organizations such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America and the UM School of Social Work.

Francesca De Geronimo, LSA senior and the GenMH conference chair, spoke to The Michigan Daily in a pre-conference interview about the importance of making both international and local connections throughout the course of the conference.

“We have speakers … and participants from all over the world,” De Geronimo said. “That added perspective and sense of global community is something … that I’m grateful GenMH has been able to cultivate.”

One of the virtual keynotes on Saturday afternoon was led by Richard Beck, a psychotherapist in New York. Beck’s speech, entitled “Climate Change and Mental Health”, focused on the intersection between environmental stress and mental health.

Beck asked participants, who came from places as far away as Canada, Kenya and South Africa, to talk about how climate change has affected their mental health. Participants discussed how climate-related issues such as food shortages affected mental health in their communities.

A Sunday morning keynote titled “Incarceration and Mental Health” combined data-backed studies with personal anecdotes to highlight the connections between incarceration and mental illness, as well as the ways incarceration itself can be traumatic.

Becca Pickus, a clinical social worker and lecturer at the University of Michigan Residential College, spoke in the keynote about how a disproportionately large number of incarcerated individuals experienced childhood trauma. She also spoke about the prevalence of mental illness and substance use disorder among prisoners.

“Jails and prisons, or incarceration, have really become our primary social response to the public health epidemic of childhood trauma, as well as to mental illness and substance abuse challenges,” Pickus said. “The nation’s prisons and jails have become mental health facilities, a role for which they are particularly ill-equipped.”

Kenneth “Bear” Tello, a teaching assistant at the University, spoke behind Pickus and shared his personal story with the prison system. Imprisoned at age 16, Tello has served 21 years in Michigan prisons. He spoke about the trauma he experienced and how helpless and isolated he felt during his time in prison.

“There is no way to rehabilitate yourself in an environment that perpetuates violence,” Tello said. “I come here (to prison) to stop being violent, but the only way I feel I can survive is to be violent.”

Pickus concluded the keynote by describing how the funds allocated to the prison system could be reallocated to support mental health care and public education.

“In Michigan, we spend $2 billion a year … criminalizing and incarcerating those in our communities who have experienced the highest rates of substance use challenges and mental illness,” Pickus said. “We can instead invest in the prevention and treatment of childhood trauma, substance use challenges and mental illness.”

Rackham student Natasha Zake said Tello’s perspective as someone who has been in the prison system stood out to her from the address.

“When it comes to conferences … and even in classes … we don’t hear from the people in the communities that we’re trying to help,” Zake said. “It was really nice to actually hear from someone who was in the system and who overcame it, but who also talked about the real mental health implications that (Tello) faced for being in the system.”

Another Sunday morning session titled “Disability Rights and Justice on Campus” featured a panel that addressed existing systems and suggested improvements for accommodating students with mental and physical disabilities at the University, as well as in education more in the general.

The panel included Ann Jeffers, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering; Allen Sheffield, associate director of Student Accessibility and Accommodation Services; Jaclyn Schess, founder and CEO of GenMH; and Dylan Secord, licensed social worker and adjunct professor at Oakland Community College. Schess said the panel topic is important to ensure students are aware of the types of accommodations available in classrooms.

“Accommodations are available to students for both physical disabilities as well as every social disability,” Schess said. “We want to make sure that students at U of M are aware (of this).”

Sheffield said it’s important to educate every student, whether they have a disability or not, about how accommodations work on campus.

“(People) lose sight of the fact that things are done not because a person … gets a benefit, but because they are done to … address past failures in the environment,” Sheffield said . “The more we can educate … the more likely students can realize that there’s something here that can be supported.”

Schess also shared her difficulties in accessing educational resources compared to other students.

“I was a Ph.D. student for the last year and a half and … I definitely had a hard time accessing education the same way as my peers,” Schess said.

Workshops are also included in the conference to enable further interaction between speakers and participants. On Sunday afternoon, Mark Creekmore, board member at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, led a workshop on “Advocacy in Michigan for Mental Health Services.” Creekmore encouraged participants to think about the important factors in planning advocacy efforts.

“The ultimate measure of mental health advocacy is whether systems improve people’s mental health.” Creekmore said. “The rest is (a) process. You have to keep your eye on the ball.”

The workshop also focused on including diverse viewpoints in mental health advocacy. After the workshop, Rackham student Vivian Nguyen spoke about this in the context of the UM student body.

“I see that a lot of people understand (mental health topics) on a personal level, but not on a community building or institutional level,” Nguyen said. “Sometimes it’s hard at such a big school to know what’s out there.”

Nguyen suggested that organizations involved in mental health advocacy seek to engage with certain communities in more targeted ways.

In an interview with The Daily following the workshop, Schess emphasized her message for the UM community.

“I think there’s a lot of pressure on young people to solve these big challenges, and then we burn out,” Schess said. “Remember to take care of yourself and try not to give in to that pressure.”

Daily contributor Bronwyn Johnston can be reached at

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