'Everybody struggles': Neuqua Valley students discuss mental health with surgeon general, Underwood

Near the end of a conversation with Neuqua Valley High School students, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy asked the students to place their right hands on their hearts, close their eyes and think about the ones who love them.

The moment served as a powerful reminder that a few seconds of quiet reflection can be a valuable resource, even during the darkest of times.

Murthy appeared Monday at the Naperville school via Zoom while a dozen Neuqua Valley students and U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood participated in a discussion about youth mental health struggles. Underwood, a 2004 Neuqua Valley graduate, organized the event only a few months after two Neuqua Valley students died by suicide.

“We don't have a lack of ingenuity or committed individuals or resources,” Murthy said. “What we need more of is to connect them with one another, and that's why I think these partnerships are so important.”

The students talked about the mental health struggles they and their friends endure. Senior Danny Appel, who discussed being a survivor of two suicide attempts, said that while events like Monday's give him hope about easing the stigma associated with mental health struggles, the momentum needs to continue.

“Everybody struggles,” he said. “It was really important for me to get that out there. That no matter who you are, where you come from, where you're going to be, it's possible to struggle.”

Two Neuqua Valley students died by suicide last fall, prompting students to plead at a November school board meeting for additional mental health resources. According to Neuqua Valley officials, 12 school counselors, three social workers, three school psychologists and a mental health coordinator are available to assist students.

At Monday's discussion, students said there is a need for greater awareness regarding the resources designed to help with social and academic pressures.

“In a place like Neuqua, we have high standards, and it's very nice to represent that image,” senior Roselynne Njau said. “We don't feel like there's a need to discuss what's happening behind that image and what you portray to others.”

Murthy and Underwood praised the students for their courage in coming forward to speak. The students felt it was important to let others know they weren't alone.

“I think it's really important to kind of give voice to the voiceless,” junior Andrew Fargo said. “In a lot of instances, people who struggle with these mental illnesses and have mental health problems aren't really able to speak for themselves and aren't really able to advocate for themselves because we're so isolated from one another.”

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