By Amelia Tarallo
Hometown Weekly Staff
Sometimes, we all need help from our friends.
That is the simple lesson the IAM Strong Foundation has been trying to teach students and their families since its establishment. The organization is making a big difference when it comes to mental health and making sure people receive the help they need.
IAM Strong was started in early 2015 by a group of moms after Westwood student Isabelle Medina tragically took her own life at the age of thirteen. “We wanted to see what we could do to support the students and their families so that no one would ever have to experience again what we were all going through,” said Cheryl Morrison Deutsch, an IAM Strong board member.
“We believe that a change needed to be made in the way in which mental health was viewed. As a result of frequently attached stigma, teenagers can feel as though getting the help they need and deserve is not an option,” explained Morrison Deutsch. “We aim to communicate to teenagers that they are not alone in their mental health struggles. Our core belief is that having positive support can, and will, make a difference in the emotional well-being of those facing the challenges of mental illness. It is through this philosophy that we hoped to make a change in the lives and experiences of teenagers.”
One of the primary focuses of IAM Strong is to create ways of educating people about mental health issues and how to face them. “Primarily, we create social media content to educate teens on the importance of getting help if they are struggling, creating awareness of those around you that may be struggling, and what to do to help them. We also fund through our grants other organizations providing education, counseling and support including Judge Baker Children’s Center, Minding Your Mind, and Families for Depression Awareness,” said Morrison Deutsch.
For the last five years, IAM Strong has become a contributing group to the Westwood community and those around it, including Norwood and Walpole. In 2015, IAM Strong sponsored Kevin Breel, a comedian and mental health advocate, to come to the Norwood Theatre. In 2017, IAM Strong welcomed swimmer and eight-time Olympic medalist Allison Schmitt to speak at the Norwood Theatre to talk about her struggles with depression and the stigma existing around mental health. By bringing in these outside speakers, IAM Strong has helped facilitate conversations between adults and kids about the importance of mental health.
The foundation’s community engagement is not solely limited to public speakers and direct education, however.
“I would have to say that the IAM Strong 5K is my favorite of all the events,” remarked Morrison Deutsch. “While it is a big fundraiser for us, it has come to mean so much more. It is an event that attracts over 500 participants from several states who are coming together to acknowledge the need to shatter the stigma surrounding mental health issues and to show support for one another. It is an event filled with laughter and tears, but leaves everyone feeling connected and is a very tangible display of one of our favorite sayings: ‘you are not alone.’”
As of August, the group has funded over $125,000 worth of programs for middle school and high school students, along with their families.
Isabelle Medina would have graduated with Westwood High School’s 2019 class. Her former classmates who helped start IAM Strong originally are all off to new adventures. “This has been a summer of real transition,” said Morrison Deutsch. “Many of the students who helped start IAM Strong are off to their freshman year in college. The Foundation is using this as an opportunity to focus on the needs of the upcoming groups of students and plan events that will speak to them and the issues that they are struggling with. Things are different than they were just five years ago. I am pleased to say that we believe things have moved in the right direction when it comes to the conversation around mental health for our teens, but there is a long way to go, and we want to make sure we are aligned with our community.”
Even with huge, positive changes in how the community views mental health struggles, IAM Strong is still determined to make sure progress continues to be made - and to ensure that no one ever has to feel the heartbreaking effects of depression and suicide.