Five years ago, Mia Flegal learned about Magnify Voices, a mental health expressive art contest for youth in fifth through 12th grade. Magnify Voices is an initiative of the New Hampshire Children’s System of Care (CSoC) and uses art and creativity to raise awareness, erase stigmas and effectuate change to help ensure the social and emotional health of youth in the Granite State.
Unbeknownst to her at the time, Mia had been living with generalized anxiety disorder since a young age. She recognized the condition while on a trip without her parents. At the time, she was headed to visit family and was traveling with her grandparents.
“I’m in California with these people that love me and that I love but I’m not enjoying it,” said Mia. “I was across the country, and I didn’t have my main support system. And that was the time where I realized I needed to figure this out.”
During that trip, she developed her first set of coping mechanisms. Meditation and writing in her journal were soothing and helped her through the trip and with other bouts of anxiety.
Mia is not alone. She is among the four million children who are affected by anxiety disorder each year in the United States. Anxiety disorder is just one of the many mental health conditions among children. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), one in six youth in New Hampshire experience a mental health disorder each year. Early intervention for mental health conditions improves outcomes throughout life and this holds true for Mia.
At first, the middle schooler procrastinated on the essay for Magnify Voices but quickly became engaged and confident in her writing and realized her love for this therapeutic outlet. In the essay titled “Helpless,” she wrote about the trip to the Golden State, which was two years prior, giving her time to accept and process what had happened.
She felt proud of her piece and submitted it. A new challenge presented itself when she was asked to read her essay to a crowd of 100 people. While her anxiety began to peak, an affirmative nod from her mother, who is her main support, gave her all the confidence she needed to continue. Mia’s work was recognized in the top-10 submissions and afforded her the chance to meet with other youth who were dealing with similar mental health conditions who had also submitted artwork to Magnify Voices.
“It helped me feel more comfortable opening up with people. The peer support environment was really cool. It was refreshing to have conversations with people in very similar situations and I felt super safe in having those conversations. Prior to that, I felt completely alone and thought something was wrong with me,” she shared.
Mia quickly recognized her passion in hearing other people’s stories and using her experiences to positively impact others. Since then, she has participated in several public speaking events with peers and adults to talk about her challenges with anxiety. Her proudest accomplishment to date is a panel discussion that she organized to discuss mental health with young children and their parents.
As a member of the Student Voice program at Nashua High School North, Mia is among a cohort of students focusing on mental health awareness and improving the school environment. The cohort is developing a concept with school psychologists and social workers for a mental health day event in her school. This event will prioritize how students can de-stress in the school environment throughout the entire day. She is also working on a handbook on how to form a school program that is long lasting and prioritizes student mental health. Her advocacy work is leading her down a career path in psychology working with elementary and middle school students.
“When I was that age, I was so confused with what was going on,” Mia said. “I know that other kids that age who are also struggling with that kind of stuff are probably feeling really lost. And that makes me emotional just thinking about it. I really want to make a difference so once they get older, they have support systems already built so they know how to adjust better.”
Mia is outgoing and happy-go-lucky. She is an avid volleyball player and someone who loves to be outside. Her favorite class is English and she has a love for writing. She is an active member in her school community.
Even though Mia has come so far in her journey with anxiety, it may never go away, and it is something she says grows with you. She now considers her essay to be an “artifact” and that as she has matured, so have her coping skills. High school and adolescent years can be stressful, and she continues to look for new ways to help her manage anxiety.
Her advice for others is to establish a support system. “It is so crucial. Keep talking about what you’re experiencing and keep speaking up for yourself. Be patient with yourself. Allow your body to have all the feelings but then understand what you can do to manage them even when they seem huge and you’ve never dealt with those feelings before. You have the strength and the coping skills within yourself to tackle all of the emotions that are coming at you at once,” Mia said.
As for Magnify Voices, she encourages other youth to submit as it was the kickstart to healing, coping and affirming the feeling that she’s not alone.
“It doesn’t matter what you struggled with because people who are there struggled with the entire spectrum of mental illnesses. I understand that it’s really difficult to put such a personal part of you into something like that. When you do that and overcome it, it opens up a world of things for you because your support system grows so much more,” said Mia.
CSoC started Magnify Voices in 2019 during national Mental Health Awareness Month in May to highlight the inadequacies in the system that serves youth and families. Magnify Voices is part of a larger, national effort to recognize the vital importance of positive mental health for a child’s healthy development. Since the New Hampshire contest began, there have been over 200 youth entries. Submissions for Magnify Voices Expressive Art Contest are open through April 3. More information is available here.
Life is challenging for many these days. Be kind to yourself. Should you or someone you know need mental health crisis care in New Hampshire, please contact the NH Rapid Response Access Point at 1-833-710-7477. If you need assistance outside NH, please call or text 988. Both are available 24 hours per day, seven days per week.