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Franklin Youth Mental Health Rally kicks off Mental Health Awareness Month, sets stage for statewide advocacy

With May designated as Mental Health Awareness Month, the second annual Youth Mental Health Rally in Franklin served as a powerful inauguration for a month-long campaign focused on mental wellness. Led by 11-year-old advocate Gracie Parker, the event underscored the critical importance of addressing mental health issues among youth, setting the stage for a month of reflection, advocacy, and action.

Parker, a Franklin resident, spearheaded the rally under the banner of her nonprofit, “Why Us Kids?,” amplifying the urgent need for early-intervention trauma counseling in elementary schools. The event, which is in its second year, drew attention to the profound impact of mental health challenges on young individuals, laying the groundwork for a month of reflection, advocacy, and tangible action.

The rally featured a compelling keynote address from Kody Kinsley, Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, who lauded Parker’s courage in sharing her personal experiences. Emphasizing the significance of vulnerability in fostering community support, Kinsley commended Parker for catalyzing meaningful dialogue around mental health.

“We are here because of one very brave, very strong, very good at emailing-me-a-lot, 11-year-old in Gracie,” Kinsley said.

In his address, Kinsley highlighted alarming statistics underscoring the urgency of the issue. He revealed that suicide has become the second-leading cause of death among children aged 10-18 in North Carolina, with 86 children spending their nights in social services offices across the state due to homelessness. In 2021, the suicide rate for youth ages 10-17 was the highest in two decades in North Carolina, according to a Child Fatality Task Force report. There were 62 suicides in the age group that year. Suicide was the second leading cause of death for ages 10-17, at 17%, behind motor vehicle accidents.

Despite these challenges, Kinsley expressed optimism, citing recent investments of $835 million in mental health initiatives and applauding Senator Kevin Corbin’s advocacy efforts.

Following Kinsley’s remarks, a diverse lineup of speakers, including local officials and advocates, took the stage to underscore the importance of community engagement in addressing mental health challenges. Franklin Mayor Jack Horton and Macon County Commissioners Board Chair Gary Shields echoed the call for collective action.

Danya Ledford, a former district court judge and current attorney, urged attendees to consider becoming foster parents and guardian adlitems, emphasizing the holistic support required for vulnerable children.

Michael Cooper and Tiffany Gladney representing one of the sponsors of the event, NC Child, shared their personal journeys with mental illness, affirming Parker’s advocacy as a catalyst for positive change. Founded in 2014, NC Child works to eliminate the barriers that stand in kids’ way.

Macon County Board of Education Chairman, Jim Breedlove, passionately articulated the crucial role that public schools undertake in addressing youth mental health concerns. He underscored his commitment to fostering environments within Macon County’s schools that prioritize student well-being. Emphasizing the interconnectedness of mental health and academic success, he highlighted the imperative for schools to not only educate but also nurture the holistic development of each student. Breedlove’s remarks reflected a profound understanding of the challenges facing today’s youth and a resolute determination to collaborate with stakeholders to ensure that Macon County’s educational system remains steadfast in its mission to serve and support every student.

Macon County Sheriff’s Lieutenant Nick Lofthouse addressed the crowd urging a community solution to ensure the next generation receive the resources they need today, to become productive citizens tomorrow.

Parker herself delivered a poignant address, reflecting on her upbringing and advocating for the presence of trauma counselors in elementary schools. She stressed the need for prevention over intervention, urging the community to invest in the future of its youth.

Parker’s power lies in her own lived-trauma, after losing her mom to drugs at six months old. Parker’s father is absent from her life, in and out of jail, leaving her to be raised by her grandparents. Parker spoke to how alone she felt dealing with her own traumas, that when she learned that her classmates had similar issues or other problems that they had to face, she wanted to do something to make a difference and help her community.

The rally culminated in a symbolic march to Franklin Town Hall, where Parker left behind informational materials before leading the procession back to the gazebo. Attendees engaged in various activities aimed at promoting coping skills, including street art and face painting.

As the event concluded, Parker’s call for sustained action reverberated. “Make a movement…do what you love,” she urged, encapsulating the resilience and determination that defined the day.

Parker’s advocacy journey continued as she traveled to Raleigh to address the inaugural “State of the Child” summit hosted by NC Child and the North Carolina Institute of Medicine the following Tuesday, serving as the keynote speaker. The summit shed light on systemic challenges in supporting the state’s youth, emphasizing the critical need for concerted efforts to ensure their well-being.

“North Carolina’s children deserve our full attention now,” said Erica Palmer Smith, executive director of NC Child. “We need to understand what they’re going through and what they need from us to be able to lead healthy and fulfilling lives.”

The State of the Child Summit focused on the current state of children’s health and well-being in North Carolina, engaging parents, lawmakers, and leaders across communities, sectors, and organizations in discussions around policy solutions to ensure North Carolina’s children had the opportunity to reach their full potential. Senator Kevin Corbin attended the summit, as did NCDHHS Secretary Kinsley and other state representatives and leaders.

With mental health at the forefront of statewide conversations, Gracie Parker’s rallying cry serves as a beacon of hope, inspiring communities to unite in addressing the pressing needs of youth mental wellness.

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