Our Chatham and the Chatham News + Record will host the next One Chatham forum next Wednesday at 7 p.m. at Central Carolina Community College in Pittsboro.
The event stems from “The Age of Anxiety”—the first season of the publications’ joint podcast, “The Chatcast.” Released in December, the 10-episode podcast explores teen mental health in Chatham County.
The forum will be moderated by the News + Record’s Zach Horner and Our Chatham’s Adrianne Cleven, who co-produced the first season of the Chatcast, and will feature five panelists specializing in mental health trends, resources and policies in Chatham County and beyond.
According to the 2018 Chatham County Community Assessment, 11.3 percent of Chatham County high school students attempted suicide between 2017 and 2018. 19.8 percent “seriously considered” attempting suicide. 16.2 percent reported experiencing some sort of “electronic bullying,” either through texting or other social media.
Yet, only 19 percent, less than one-fifth, of students said they felt comfortable discussing their feelings with a parent or another adult.
“A lot of teenagers feel like adults don’t listen, and if they do listen, they don’t understand,” Horner said.
Horner hopes that the One Chatham forum will open a discussion in the community about mental health and provide a course of action for combatting the issue.
“I want people to take away from the forum that they can be part of the solution,” he said. “Teenagers are looking for ways to get help, and sometimes they just don’t feel like there’s anyone there to help them. But the good thing is, there are a lot of people who do want to help.”
One barrier that some teens in Chatham County face when seeking help for mental health is inequitable access to counseling and other resources.
Nationally, schools are suggested to have a ratio of 250 students to one counselor. In Chatham County, that ratio is closer to 400 students to one counselor, and 1,000 students to one social worker.
At the state level, the General Assembly in 2018 allocated $35 million to the School Safety Grants Program, which allows schools to apply to the North Carolina Department of Instruction for funding for additional mental health support personnel, among other safety resources.
The law was updated in 2019 to provide $38 million for the 2019-2020 fiscal year and $29 million for the 2020-2021 fiscal year.
Since the 2018 assessment, Chatham County Schools has implemented changes to help students who otherwise couldn’t afford outside resources, such as bringing in additional counselors and implementing “trauma-informed schooling.”
“Schools are having to wrestle with this more than ever before,” Horner said.
For at least one panelist, the issues discussed in “The Age of Anxiety” and their connection to education is particularly evident.
Abigail Holmes, a sophomore at Chatham Charter School, was featured prominently in the podcast and has struggled with anxiety and depression. Using her own experiences, Holmes has educated her peers and classmates on mental health and resources they can seek out.
Horner said Holmes’s perspective is perhaps the most unique on the panel.
“I’m really excited to have people hear from her,” Horner said. “It’s so powerful to hear from an actual teenager who has experienced these issues.”
The other panelists are:
- Tracy Fowler, Chatham County Schools’ executive director of student support services
- George Greger-Holt, Chatham Drug Free’s community outreach director
- Wilder Horner, a social worker with Chatham County Department of Social Services
- State Rep. Robert Reives II, who represents Chatham County in the North Carolina House of Representatives.
While some topics related to mental health are political and are at the center of heated debates nationally, Horner said that the issue can be tackled through nonpartisan policy efforts—something he hopes the forum will bring to light.
“I think what is agreed upon by most people is that there’s a lot more money that can be spent in this arena and there’s a lot more people that can be dedicated to helping kids,” he said.
For Cleven, who is from Chatham County, the upcoming forum is an opportunity to build community and bring positive change to the county.
“The forum is really what I dream of in terms of community journalism,” she said. “To be able to put out a really great longform-type piece, then to be able to engage the community in a real physical event, is a dream come true.”
All 10 episodes of “The Age of Anxiety” are available for free wherever podcasts are available. A listening guide is available from the News + Record—and there’s still time to listen to all of the episodes before the One Chatham forum next Wednesday. If you’re interested in attending, RSVP here.