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My story, and why I care about mental health

By Megan Sawatzky

This essay is part of the Student Agenda Essay Series, where students are sharing the pillars of the National Student Agenda that resonate most, and why they take action.

Megan, pictured in the center of the picture, is located in Raleigh, NC and is a first-year Master's student at North Carolina State University.

When I was asked to speak at a conference this past February, I was terrified. I’ve always been an introvert - never wanting to be in the spotlight or the center of attention. So, my first instinct was to turn down the opportunity — but something stopped me. For the first time, I thought maybe my voice deserved to be heard. 

I first became passionate about education justice because of my passion for mental health. During my senior year of high school, I was in a youth psychiatric facility for a short period of time to aid my struggling mental health. While there, although I was focused on my healing, I couldn’t stop worrying about one thing: school. It was the beginning of the school year, and I couldn’t help but think about the amount of work I was sure to have to make up when I returned, alongside the terrifying thought of time-consuming college applications.

When I returned, while my teachers were sympathetic, I still had mass amounts of work to do on top of jumping back into the regular school schedule. It was clear that my school prioritized my grades over my mental health. I felt let down by these adults that did not show up for me in a time of need and understanding. I no longer trusted my school or the notion that they genuinely wanted to support me. I hoped for a counselor to talk to - but my school did not even have one, leaving students to find counselors on their own, something just not affordable or accessible in our society. I have since pursued a career in social work and mental health advocacy - hoping that one day all students can have access to mental health care - something that should be a human right, not a privilege.

Once I got to college, I learned more about the counseling resources offered there. I’d hoped that I would be met with a better experience than in high school, and could use the resources available to continue working on my mental health. However, I quickly learned that each student was only allotted three free sessions with a counselor before being referred elsewhere. I was shocked - college can be a trying time for any person as they experience such a major transition. Over the course of my last school year, seven students tragically took their lives. Heartbreak and outrage do not begin to describe the impact on our community. We looked to higher-up officials for a change - but all that happened was those three free therapy sessions turned into twelve. According to the American College Health Association, “suicidal thinking, severe depression and rates of self-injury among U.S. college students more than doubled in less than a decade,” but all my school could do was offer a few more free sessions.

Right around this time was when I found out about Our Turn, and knew it was the right time for me to join the fight for education. 

While I felt strongly about advocacy, I didn’t know how to combat my anxiety and shyness in order to share my voice, story, and opinions. When I started at Our Turn, I quickly learned that not only was my opinion valued, it was needed. I learned just how important students’ voices are in changing the tide in education. 

My role at Our Turn has often included public speaking, as I have facilitated meetings for the first time I was especially terrified the first time, but as I continued to be met with such warmth and empowerment, I could relax knowing that what I was doing was valuable. Doing things outside of my comfort zone has been so much of my role here, but I have felt the most professionally developed in my life so far. 

The conference I was asked to speak at in February alongside one of my amazing Our Turn colleagues required that we prepare a 45-minute presentation in front of a room of over 50 k-12 school district leaders. Again, this was WAY out of my comfort zone. I needed to share my story of self as a form of advocacy, and again, I felt that I had nothing important to say. It took reflection to realize that my story was part of my strength, and that my passions and opinions needed to be shared.

I thought about everything I experienced in high school and the lack of mental health resources at my school. I thought of everyone I knew that had the same struggles with no professional to turn to. I thought of the seven students that took their own lives at my university. Suddenly, I knew I had my story of self ready. While I experienced anxiety before our presentation, something had shifted inside me. Afterwards, hearing the gratitude of those who attended our talk, I knew we had done well. And all I had to do was share my story.

Working at Our Turn has taught me just how impactful a personal story can be, enough to get someone to take action alongside you and fight for the change you want to see. It has also taught me how to combat shyness and a lack of confidence when doing things you may not be immediately comfortable with. Passion will carry you farther than you ever thought you could go, and make the lasting impact you have been dreaming about.