Cayman youth connect for mental health

Youth Ambassadors Yoleiddy Cid-Paredes, Jhadari Lumley, Cristin Jackson and Paxton McCoy pose during February's Mental Health Symposium. - Photo: Submitted

Cayman’s teens are reinforcing their support networks and taking advantage of video conferencing technology to stay connected with peers.

As the isolation and uncertainty of the COVID-19 crisis continues to wear on mental health, technologies such as Zoom have become an important tool in keeping teens socially engaged.

On Saturday, around 50 teens from 12 Cayman Islands schools came together on the platform to discuss common mental health concerns, many of which have been exacerbated during lockdown, from stress and anxiety to drugs and domestic abuse.

As part of the Youth Ambassadors Programme, a divison of the Alex Panton Foundation, teenagers are learning how to tackle difficult discussions about mental health and open up to their peers.

Beyond providing peer support, the group also aims to promote policy change and advocate for a health system that addresses mental health needs, explained Youth Ambassador Cristin Jackson.

“Although we are physically apart, we remain united in creating a more compassionate community,” Jackson told her fellow and aspiring youth ambassadors.

More than 40 students have joined the programme this year, said mentor Bill LaMonte, a teacher at Cayman International School. The number of new students shows increased interest in the programme, which had about 25 students complete the requirements to become an ambassador last year.

Through the programme, ambassadors have worked to promote conversations about mental health through events such as February’s Youth Mental Health Symposium.

“Their confidence and empathy have grown so much this year. They have become strong leaders in our community,” LaMonte said.

“This highlights just how important these mental health issues are for our community and how willing our teens are to step up and take the lead.”

During the Zoom session, Miss World Cayman Jaci Patrick opened up about her own struggles with mental health and the value in having open conversations about the subject.

Donning her Miss World Cayman crown, Patrick shared her experiencing battling anxiety, depression and an eating disorder.

“I never talked about it with my family or friends. I kept everything hidden inside and isolated myself from the world,” Patrick said.

“Growing up with a mental illness made me experience the world in a very different way. I lived in a constant state of fear – fear of getting help, fear that no one would understand what I was feeling and fear of speaking about my mental illness.”

While stigma and fear held her back for many years, she said she finally came to realise that seeking help is a sign of strength, rather than weakness.

Jane Panton, who lost her own teenage son, Alex, to suicide, said the fruition of the peer support group represented a dream she has held for many years. She said she hoped the group would help teens connect and support each other during dark times.

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