Town Talk Features

Breaking the Silence: Mental Illness Support for Teenagers

According to the World Health Organization, mental health conditions account for 16% of the global burden of disease and injury in adolescents, and more teenagers are dealing with issues like depression and anxiety than ever before. For many young adults, this struggle is often handled alone and in silence as they are uncertain of how to reach out for help. MICDS junior Shelly Bhagat saw how unwilling teenagers can be to speak about their mental health. In order to reduce the stigma around the topic and educate students, she and her friend, Siri Battula, launched Mental Illness Support for Teenagers (MIST), a 100% student-led initiative.

“There is societal pressure that prevents a lot of people from being open about mental illness and seeking help,” Bhagat says. “When I was in middle school, many of my friends were struggling with their mental health, and I realized how important it is to talk about these issues, especially for my generation since it’s so prevalent.” In the spring of her freshman year, she reached out to Battula about starting a mental health initiative. They decided to initially focus on teenagers from south Asian cultures. Battula previously had attended school in India and saw first hand that the stigma about mental health was even greater there.

Shelly Bhagat

Over the summer, Bhagat went to Singapore, and Battula visited India. They both shared presentations on mental health with students. To prepare for the experience, they consulted with their counselor at MICDS. After returning to St. Louis, they worked on establishing MIST locally and creating opportunities for other students to get involved. The organization now reaches teens through social media and a newsletter, which it started last April. Each issue focuses on a different topic, such as body image and beauty standards or loneliness during the pandemic. “We’ve also been working on a podcast and are planning a webinar,” Bhagat notes. “Plus, our student volunteers can purpose and lead their own projects.”

When developing MIST with Battula, Bhagat never expected it to have the reach it does now. The organization currently is working with kids across the country and around the globe with chapters in St. Louis; Fresno County, California; and Dubai. “Honestly, it’s been pretty surreal,” Bhagat notes. “It started with an idea that I brought to Siri. It’s crazy that it has grown so much and so quickly. There are people involved that I’ve never met in person, and I think it’s amazing to be able to reach so many individuals. I’m really proud to be part of something that is spreading awareness about mental health.”

For Bhagat, the organization’s growth means more students are working to eliminate the stigma around mental illness. By expanding the conversation, she hopes to help more people and save more lives. “I definitely want to see MIST continue to expand and grow,” she says. “I’m also excited to see the amazing work my peers are doing to raise awareness. Ultimately, our goal is to create a world where people can talk about their issues and get help without feeling ashamed.”