Home News Center Voices for Georgia's Children Works to Erase Mental Health Stigma with Free Your Feels Campaign

Voices for Georgia's Children Works to Erase Mental Health Stigma with Free Your Feels Campaign

March 15, 2022
Courtney M. McSwain

Photo of young people in a Free Your Feels t-shirt with article headline

NJJN member Voices for Georgia's Children (Voices) is taking on the youth mental health crisis with Free Your Feels - a youth mental health campaign aimed to help young people feel comfortable talking about their mental health. Free Your Feels began when the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD) approached Voices about partnering on a youth mental health campaign. The idea became urgent when organizers saw the mental health impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on young people.  

"We were brainstorming for several months, and then, when COVID hit, we realized that we couldn't just keep talking about it. We needed to actually put something out there because this type of campaign is needed now more than ever," said Maria Ramos, Program Specialist with Voices for Georgia's Children.  

Free Your Feels provides a resource hub of information for youth, educators and families to broaden awareness and conversation. Using social media, the Free Your Feels encourages youth to share how they are feeling and provides toolkits with sample posts and hashtags, like #freeyourfeels and #freeyourfeelsfriday. The campaign also publishes resource toolkits tailored for specific themes or audiences, like resources for dealing with mental health challenges during back-to-school season, resources for BIPOC youth and families, or resources for mental health and summer learning. 

Programs like Free Your Feels are urgently needed. In December, the U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued an advisory on the youth mental health crisis. In his advisory, Dr. Murthy noted the compounding impact COVID-19 had on youth mental health and acknowledged the crisis existed long before the pandemic. According to the advisory, up to 1 in 5 children ages 3 to 17 in the U.S. had a mental, emotional, developmental or behavioral disorder before the pandemic. Additionally, from 2009 to 2019, the share of high school students who reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness increased by 40% to more than 1 in 3 students. Free Your Feels helps youth and communities become more comfortable discussing youth mental health, which erases the stigma and creates more pathways to support. In particular, educating schools and communities helps adults recognize when young people are experiencing a mental health challenge and respond with appropriate care - not criminalization.  

The latest NJJN policy platform, "Keep Children with Mental Health Challenges out of the Youth Legal System," outlines how youth mental health challenges are often punished rather than treated. Youth of color are especially vulnerable to being funneled into the legal system when experiencing trauma rather than being met with appropriate care.  

"A student doesn't deserve to be put into the justice system just for having a bad day," said Yasmine Edge, Free Your Feels Program Manager. "Our goal with Free Your Feels is to provide teachers and school personnel with tools and language to get in front of those urgent situations so that they don't escalate and resort to involving police or the legal system.   

Creating a state-wide awareness campaign come with challenges, and Ramos and Edge note that creating focus counties and bringing in partners like Vox ATL and Silence the Shame have helped the campaign's success thus far. Vox ATL, a nonprofit youth-led media platform, has been especially helpful in getting direct feedback and engagement with youth. The campaign also received early input from the Georgia Department of Education's student advisory council. The next phase of the campaign will equip youth to apply all of the information in their everyday lives.  

"We're learning that youth need to know how to interact with the resources we are providing," Edge said. "It's important that we educate young people on how they can advocate for themselves and their own health or for policy changes related to mental health care."  

The campaign plans to develop scripts for youth if they have to call a mental health hotline or specific language teachers and parents can use when having mental health conversations with young people. Another primary goal for the future of the campaign is to start peer groups in schools and communities, which have begun in some areas. "We want to help young people feel comfortable starting those kinds of peer-led support groups so that every school has a place for their students to talk about mental health," Ramos said.   

Adds Edge, "It's important that we find creative ways to speak to the needs of young people and the people who are assisting them in their day-to-day lives."  


Learn more at the Free Your Feels: Website, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter.  

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