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First Lady Jill Biden visits high school to discuss mental health

Elizabeth Schuth

Editor in Chief

September 5, 2023

Presidential Photo-op: After the panel, members of the football team grabbed a picture with Dr. Jill Biden

First Lady Jill Biden, accompanied by Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, visited Westfield High School to speak in a panel with other leaders in the Westfield High School mental health community.

Westfield High School was chosen as a stop on Dr. Biden’s back-to-school tour because of its prominent chapter of Robbie’s Hope. Robbie’s Hope, run by seniors Annaleice Emigh, Zoe Milewski, and Nora Flickinger is a chapter of an organization dedicated to cutting suicide rates in teenagers by 50 percent by 2028. The club’s annual events include the Save a Life Walk, a Gala fundraiser, and regular monthly meetings to raise mental health awareness.

“[Robbie’s Hope] has really positively impacted me because this whole thing just started with me, Nora, and Zoe having meetings the three of us by ourselves before school,” Emigh stated. “Just recently … a student came up to me after our save a life walk and told me they were at our walk and it saved their life … we’re making an impact not only in our school but in our community.”

Spreading the hope: Robbie’s Hope club leaders Annaleice Emigh, Zoe Milewski, Nora Flickinger, and Elyse Menzel give a presentation on the club's goals to the First Lady and Surgeon General.

The event began with a few words from Biden, an English teacher at North Virginia Community College, as she discussed the difficulties of mental health as the school year begins again.

“Each new school year we stand on the precipice of possibility, but there still are some students that are wrestling through anxiety or feeling isolated, and I saw this in my own classroom after the pandemic,” Biden said.

Biden then discussed the importance of community in people’s lives and how she works every day to create a sense of community in her own classroom. She encouraged others to continue to open up and share their stories.

“Never underestimate your power, to help, to hope, you’re shining a light in the darkness, helping so many find their way through,” Biden said. “Know that your courage does not go unnoticed, and that’s why I’m here … what you’re doing here is going to heal communities.”

The panel highlighted federal efforts to support mental health such as the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act. This bill monumentally increased funding for mental health grants as well as expanded the 988 suicide hotline. Murthy has been especially outspoken about the current mental health crisis. He has issued three public health advisories concerning teen mental health, the ill effects of social media, and loneliness.

“I’ve had the chance to travel around the country and talk to students and to hear what they’re concerned about,” Dr. Murthy said. “They talk about their experiences being bullied, they talk about the trauma they may have experienced, they talk about social media … they also talked about the underlying depression of modern day hustle culture which is pushing us to chase more and more and more.”

The impact of the White House visitors resonated strongly with the attending students and staff members, with Principal Alicia Denniston claiming the words of the First Lady and Surgeon General “lit a fire” of inspiration for Westfield High School mental health programs.

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” freshman Ava Davis said. “I’m only 14 but I got to be in the same room as the First Lady … it was very empowering, it makes you feel good to know that you’re being noticed.”

Dr. Biden and Dr. Murthy were also interested in hearing suggestions and stories from Westfield High School students and opened up the end of the panel as an open mic session encouraging students to stand up and share.

“It’s not our job to fix each other and a lot of people are trying too hard to fix each other instead of learning to love each other broken,” senior John Wickham said. “We need to continue the conversation … to someone who can help. Me telling you that I don't want you to share my secret, it's a cry for help. Too many people take it to heart and try to hide the way that everyone is feeling, but I would rather protect your life than your secret.”

Mental health continues to be a wildfire raging through communities, and one single panel won’t be enough to smother the flames, but it is an important step towards creating more opportunities to share voices and stories and ultimately extinguishing the stigma surrounding mental health.

“Change happens … person by person, relationship by relationship, school by school, community by community,” Murthy said. “This will help us do what we need to do to create a world where everyone knows that they matter. Where everybody knows that they belong. Where everyone knows that they’re deserving of kindness and compassion.”

Surveying the crowd: United States Surgeon General Vivek Murthy asks the panel audience to raise their hand if they know someone struggling with mental health.

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