Harford County students advocating for mental health changes


The newly established Student Mental Health Council (SMHC) is a way for students to impact the school system in order to make school a better place for everyone.

The Student Mental Health Council has already branched out to speakers and foundations across Maryland including Jordan Lally of the Ed Lally Foundation, which was created to help those struggling with mental illness.

Mental illness is seen as a hushed subject among many schools, according to both Josh Oltarzewski, a senior at Harford Technical High School and Harford County’s Student Member on the Harford County Board of Education (SMOB)  and  CMW senior Haley Slaughter.  “Up until now mental health has been largely overlooked, even though it is a very serious issue.  This council is made up of students, who those in charge will have a very hard time overlooking,” said Slaughter.

Oltarzewski also believes that “mental health needs to be treated like any physical ailments, with proper attention and care. According to Oltersewaki, “No one wants to open up because of the fear of stigma which is why we are trying to start a conversation so that others can continue it.”

“It is very difficult having a mental illness, because you are fighting a war within your own head.  Your brain is working against you, and that is very hard to overcome.” Said Slaughter.  This council will hopefully lift the stigma around mental illness among teens and bring awareness to those struggling.

NH freshman Chloe Ward feels mental health service “can be improved on, and that it needs to be more inclusive for the mental health problems people deal with here.”

Oltarzewski was a driving force in the creation of this council. He states, “The student mental health council is a group made up of middle and high school students, with the goal of addressing the mental health needs in Harford County Public Schools. The goal of our group is to get the student perspective on mental health needs.” He wants the students on his council to provide HCPS with ways to help the teachers, students and staff members in Harford County.

“Currently, we are working with the advising and direction of Ms. Cristina Alton, who is the HCPS mental health specialist. We also have guest speakers sharing their views and giving us advice at our Board of Education meetings.” Oltarzewski looked for students from each middle and high school in the county to serve on the council.

CMW senior Haley Slaughter also played a big role with creating this council. “I hope to be a voice for those who are currently struggling in silence. It is very difficult having a mental illness, because you are fighting a war within your own head. Your brain is working against you, and that is very hard to overcome.”

Slaughter wants to help foster an environment that is safe for students to share their personal experiences. “I hope that once there is a firm foundation to the council and many of the initiatives we are working on, more students will jump on and further increase the momentum of our council.”

Slaughter feels that mental health is overlooked in our county and hopes that this council will create a comfortable platform so students can share their personal experiences.

Patterson Mill junior Alli Chenworth, has also played an important part of establishing this council. One of her goals for the year is hopefully decreasing the stigma around mental health. “The stigma surrounding mental health is something that really upsets me. If our leg is broken, we do not hesitate to go to the doctors for help. But, for some reason, when we don’t feel well mentally, we refuse to go to the doctors because we’re embarrassed or ashamed. Why? Why is it okay for us to be healthy physically but not mentally? Health is health.”

They are hoping to work with Jordan Lally of The Ed Lally Foundation, an organization focusing on raising awareness for mental health, and to provide services to those who are suffering. Slaughter and Oltarzewski hope to work with more organizations to give students better solutions to their mental health problems.

Oltarzewski, Slaughter, Chenworth and other members have reviewed applications for the council and will be having their first meeting on May 23 at Harford Technical High School.

If students  are suffering from a mental illness, there are ways to get help. Speak to a school counselor or a trusted adult.