MECHANICSVILLE, Va. — At Atlee High School, more than a hundred students belong to a group known as the SpeakUp Club.
It's high school-based and peer-driven mental health support group for students. The group started small in 2015, but has since grown to accommodate more students who want to participate in monthly meetings, group activities and out-of-school celebrations aimed at creating an inclusive environment where students feel heard.
For students Belle Skelton, Libbie Payne and Suzanne Donaldson, trust and friendship are the cornerstones to their SpeakUp Club, and the reasons for its success. Atlee has one of the largest SpeakUp Clubs in Virginia.
“There’s no judgment around it,” explained Skelton.
“Because we’re all on the same playing field,” added Donaldson. “We’re all in this together.”
As upperclassman, the students all serve in leadership roles in the club, where they encourage other students to share concerns and stories about depression, anxiety and other mental health issues that have spiraled among the teen population in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Atlee, especially, over the last few years, has experienced a lot of loss with students,” said Payne. “So I think the club is important to just promote that it’s OK to not be OK and that you need to speak up if something is wrong.”
The idea for high school SpeakUp Clubs was inspired by the story of Cameron Gallagher, a Henrico County teenager who passed away from cardiac arrhythmia in March 2014 just moments after crossing the finish line of a half marathon in Virginia Beach.
While Gallagher struggled with teen anxiety and depression, her mission became to help others feel less alone in their struggle. Just months before her death, she began planning a community race to help end the stigma associated with mental illness and encourage other teens to share their stories.
Today, the Cameron K. Gallagher SpeakUp 5K, and the foundation launched in her name, continues to inspire students around the country. More than 15 SpeakUp Clubs have formed in Virginia, and as far away as Tampa, Florida.
“I think I’ve learned to be more empathetic, more caring and careful of people’s feelings and knowing when they’re sharing a story, to sit there and listen and take it in and really comprehend what they’re saying,” said Skelton.
“I think a lot of people feel like the way they’re feeling now is never going to change and they’re never going to be able to get better, no matter what they do, and I think that’s one of the reasons that the SpeakUp Club is so important. It really highlights the fact that things will get better,” said Payne.
On May 17, the group is planning a 7 p.m. “Night to SpeakUp” event at the Ashcreek Community Club in Hanover County. Student and club member, Maggie Pace, organized the event to help spread awareness, forge friendships and encourage more students across Central Virginia to form their own SpeakUp group.
“People have reached out to me and told me how excited they are for the event,” Pace said. “I have teachers tell me they’re very excited too.”
Donaldson added that several parents, teachers and school administrators understand the importance of the club’s role and are taking more active roles in participating with the student-led group.
“We’re really working together with the school now,” Donaldson said. “The teachers and the administration to figure out a solution, or at least a temporary solution, to letting others know that they aren’t alone and they can reach out for help if they need it.”
While the students said they understand mental health issues can be complicated and challenging, they believe that compassion can make a huge difference — even if students aren’t trained counselors.
“Our sponsor, Kelly Pace, one thing she says to do each day is be 1% better and that 1% could save someone’s life,” Skelton said. “Seriously, that’s what people need to take in and know, even that smile you give someone in the hallway…you never know what they’re actually feeling.”
For more information on SpeakUp Clubs, click here.