WESTFIELD NJ — With the coronavirus pandemic highlighting mental health awareness, students attending the Union County Vocational Technical-Schools are educating their community about and advocating for better mental health.
During the early stages of the pandemic, UCVTS students attending the Academy of Allied Health Sciences founded Mind Behind the Mask, a student-run organization dedicated to discussing mental health topics and providing resources to those affected.
With social media being their main platform of outreach, the students created a medium over the internet to bring people together. They have interviewed healthcare professionals working on the front lines of the pandemic, business owners, teachers and others whose lives have been impacted by COVID-19.
Clara Yu, a Westfield student at the Academy and a member of the organization, said that the ultimate goal for Mind Behind the Mask is to engage the community and educate others on mental health — a goal they are working toward every day.
“I feel like mental health is something that people are aware of but not enough that they can actually go out and do something about it,” Yu said. “Mind Behind the Mask teaches them and shows them how they can do something and how they can improve their own mental health.”
Alumni of the Academy and advisors to Mind Behind the Mask Sahil Parikh and his cousin Snehal Parikh came together in March and discussed how they could involve the young community in helping out during the pandemic. They instantly found a group of students at the Academy who were ready to effect change in something they are passionate about.
“It’s amazing to watch these brilliant students come together, bring ideas and execute them,” Sahil Parikh said. “And [they do so] in a way that a lot of average adults can’t execute.”
The Parikh cousins describe their roles as advisors to the organization as merely guiding the students and providing them with the resources to make their footprint within their community.
“Our goal was really to give them the tools, the facility, the platform, and the support to do whatever they felt they could to make the world a better place,” Sahil Parikh said.
Students meet once a week as a group, but they also work independently offline. They spend time researching and learning about various mental health related topics, and with teamwork, they are able to find both creative and engaging ways to share their information with the public.
Sahil Parikh said that Mind Behind the Mask is meant to “keep giving a voice to people behind the masks, share their stories and give the community a platform to speak up.”
On their website and Instagram account, students post resources, statistics and other information to advocate for mental health awareness. For example, one week in December was dedicated to sharing information about Seasonal Affective Disorder. The disorder, commonly called SAD, is a type of depression related to changes in the seasons.
Throughout the week, students posted information about symptoms, coping mechanisms and general facts about the topic. To keep their followers engaged and aware of their own mental health, they held a giveaway via their Instagram. Participants had the chance to complete and share a bingo board on their Instagram story about what they had done to improve their own mental health for the chance to win an Amazon 4k Fire Stick.
“We are still building our following and laying the foundation for everything,” Yu said. “But we are all very passionate about what we do and are always looking for new ways to get our ideas out there.”
As the social media chair of the organization, Yu said that her job carries great personal significance as she is able to feel the difference that Mind Behind the Mask is making on her community.
“Just having the information is not doing that much,” she said. “But if you are the one spreading it, and the one who is creating the content and bringing it out there, it makes the bigger difference.”
Currently, Mind Behind the Mask is only available to Allied Health students at UCVTS. The organization is growing, however, and the students hope to broaden their reach within the community.
“We don’t want this to be a seen as a student or school organization,” Sahil Parikh said. “I think what the members of the organization are doing are well beyond what teens are capable of doing. It transcends a teenager or a student.”
Sahil Parikh and Snehal Parikh graduated from the Academy of Allied Health Sciences in 2011 and 2014 respectively. Sahil Parikh works in the mental health field as a Research Assistant on the Care Pathways Initiative at Hackensack Meridian Health. Snehal Parikh works at the CDC as a contact-tracer for COVID-19.
You can contact Mind Behind The Mask for inquires about participating in an interview, or to view their information/resources by visiting their website or Instagram. You can also contact Sahil Parikh via email at email@example.com.
Annika Vesuna is a student at Westfield High School participating in a journalism program with TAPinto Westfield.
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