By AMANDA VALENTOVIC
For Montclair Local
Montclair High School students will soon have more places to turn to for mental health support, due to a partnership between local organizations and a national foundation that works with schools on strengthening their resources.
The Jed Foundation’s high school program is a good match for the Montclair organizations, which have been spending the last few years working to erase the stigma of talking about mental health, Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence Director Masiel Rodriquez-Vars said. The MFEE and the nonprofit Jared’s Fund partnered with the Jed Foundation to bring it to Montclair.
“We met with them a couple years ago and really wanted to bring it to the high school, even then,” Rodriquez-Vars said. “Especially after COVID hit, and all of what our young people are dealing with became urgent and paramount.”
Jed works with high schools to evaluate and strengthen their mental health resources, giving students more avenues for help and educators more training to recognize the need for it.
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According to Rodriquez-Vars, new Principal Jeffrey Freeman and his administration have been responsive to making changes.
“They don’t come in and say, ‘Here’s the program and the guidebook, here you go,’” Rodriquez-Vars said about the Jed Foundation. “They’re cultivating the people to do the work. Then you sow that into the broader campus, and it’s not dependent on one principal. It’s everyone that can own the work, and it’s sustainable.”
The program can also help students talk about where mental health intersects with other issues, racial and social justice among them.
Current MHS senior Elias Benchekroun was a host of “Unmute: We Don’t Need to Keep Silent About Our Mental Health,” a video discussion that introduced the partnership in late March. Students were able to share their own stories.
Benchekroun was also a 2020 fellow of Jared’s Fund, which has been working to encourage students to talk about their mental health more openly since it launched a few years ago. Named after Jared Zimmerman, a Montclair native and MHS graduate who died in 2016 after struggling with his own mental illness, the organization sponsors summer fellowships for high school students to work with mental health-related nonprofits or take on projects of their own design, in addition to supporting other mental health initiatives.
Benchekroun, along with Jack Rodriquez-Vars and Genesis Whitlock, created the “Rehumanize Podcast,” where they interviewed students and professionals who were Black, Indigenous or other people of color.
“Especially with being stuck inside and everything that happened with George Floyd and Black Lives Matter, a lot of people didn’t know how to feel,” Benchekroun said, referencing the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020 and the protests that erupted nationwide afterward. “We realized that mental health just isn’t discussed. There’s this generational trauma that’s passed down to us.”
Benchekroun said he was heartened to see adults in the community listening during the kickoff event.
“We often feel stuck and not able to approach them,” he said. “For so long, it’s been unaddressed. You go to school, you play your sport, you get good grades, and then there’s no time to say, ‘Hey, I don’t feel good.’”
The pandemic became an added obstacle: Stuck at home and relegated to online learning, students weren’t able to walk into classrooms or offices to ask their teachers for help. Email became the primary way to communicate, but there was no guarantee a message would be read or responded to right away.
Still, Benchekroun is optimistic. As senior class president, he was included in the search for the new principal before Freeman was hired.
“I have seen a shift at MHS,” he said. “He’s serious about it and wants to recognize the struggles with mental health, and the mental health of students of color.”
Benchekroun isn’t the only one who’s noticed the change, no matter how slowly it’s come and how far there still is to go. Gabe Zimmerman — Jared’s brother — isn’t a student at MHS anymore, and as a second-year law student he isn’t around town as often as he used to be. But he does see the applications of students applying for the Jared’s Fund fellowship, which numbered in the 50s last year.
“I was surprised by how many responses there were and how open they were in their applications,” Gabe Zimmerman said. “I never felt that comfortable. It makes me wish my brother had that, because he could have talked about it. I hope it has a downstream effect.”
The Jed program’s work builds on existing efforts, like those of Jared’s Fund.
“They’re not just creating new programs, but talking about what needs to be done to support mental health,” Ken Zimmerman, one of the founders of Jared’s Fund and Jared’s father, said. “How do you start talking about it? We felt Montclair High was very well-positioned for it and really understood the need.”
Jared’s family never got a firm diagnosis for the mental illness that he began to struggle with when he was a junior in high school, but it was likely schizophrenia, his family has said. At the time, he didn’t have supports in place to give him the help he needed.
“His friends, who were wonderful kids, just didn’t know how to deal with it,” said Jackie Baillargeon, Jared’s mother and another founder of the fund. “Their parents and the school just had no idea. No one did.”
Gabe Zimmerman compared mental illness to physical illness: It should be treated the same way. Also an MHS alum, he doesn’t have many memories of talking about it when he was a student there.
“I don’t remember ever going over mental health in health class,” he said. “I didn’t really know much until my brother went through it. That’s not to say anything bad about the school, but it was never an open conversation. It’s so simple, yet so complicated. Even if you’re just having a bad day, being able to talk to a friend about it feels like a weight being lifted.”
Baillargeon compared it to the conversation around a cancer diagnosis in the 1960s.
“It was this scary thing that no one wanted to talk about,” she said. “Look at how that’s changed now. We’re thrilled to see it finally take root. Folks are much more attuned to these issues than they were a few years ago. We don’t want a family to have to go through what we went through. We don’t want someone to go through what Jared went through.”