UIX: Brave Grand Rapids is building foundations for mental health

Allison Waldron and Brave Grand Rapids are working to bring mental health out of the darkness of stigma and promote a foundation of wellness in area youth.
What does it mean to be brave?
To a community, bravery can take on many different molds.
For Brave Grand Rapids counselor Allison Waldron, bravery continues to be doing the hard thing.
"It means saying 'no,' when saying 'yes' might be the easier option. It means having that difficult conversation with a friend or family member," she says. "It means being vulnerable and speaking up for yourself, even though it can be emotionally draining and uncomfortable."
It's not an easy thing to do, but for many in Grand Rapids it can be all they have. At Brave, Waldron is hoping  to help local youth find the confidence to live intentionally. Within the majestic brick walls of the 103 College Ave estate Waldron works with young clients on issues related to assertiveness and identity, self-worth, grief, and beyond. 
"Brave Grand Rapids came to be through a vision to serve the young adult community through counseling and to provide a place where people can come to feel safe," she says, "The entire process of counseling involves taking risks: from sending an email to the final session, bravery is involved."
Waldron has strong connections to the West Michigan community, a spirit that's also fostered in the work of Brave. She attended Grand Valley State University for her undergraduate studies, and received a master's degree in counseling from Cornerstone University, and has since volunteered her services in the form of emotional and academic support to local high schools and youth groups. 
As Brave Grand Rapids grows, Waldron is counting on strong community bonds to help spread words of empowerment and confidence to youth affected by mental health issues. It's a population that expands every day, and without help, could become more isolated as well.
The National Institute of Mental Health and the National Alliance on Mental Illness report that 1 in 5 children between the ages of 13 and 18 are living with a serious mental illness and that half of all mental illness issues begin by the age of 14. Mental health is obviously a serious issue that requires skill and empathy to confront but it's also a field that Waldron believes an entire community can support as they grow together. 
"The idea of Brave continues to change its shape," she says.
Mental Health has long been and still is, surrounded by a stigma of inadequacy. From labels to economic burdens, to a fear of strange environments, there are many reasons why someone, especially a young person, would not seek treatment. This is a hurdle many mental health organizations face in connecting with youths, according to HQ Grand Rapids Drop-In Director Holly Anderton. 
"Youth who struggle with mental illness deserve to engage in resources that are specific to youth and with minimal barriers," Anderton says. "Many organizations offer mental health services but they require youth to participate in lengthly and invasive intakes that can be triggering to youth, overwhelming, assumes youth should trust them, and inappropriate."
Opportunities for mental health services are often restricted to those with health insurance, which can cut off a large segment of the youth population. But their needs are just as great, Anderton says.
"Many unsafe and unstably housed youth do not have health insurance and are not interested in engaging in a mental health service that requires them to give all of their personal information. This stems from a lack of trust in community providers and organizations not being youth sensitive," she says. "Additionally, many youth feel they are judged based upon the insurance they have."
While mental health is a growing concern in modern society, access to those resources need to increase at the same rate or the concerns will only get worse. According to Anderton, it's going to take a bit of creativity to appropriately address the unmet mental health needs among youth in West Michigan and beyond. The key lies in building opportunities for youth to experience services where they can regain trust in the system prior to having to disclose so much information about themselves.
Community support
A vision for community supported mental health is not far behind with new training programs like Mental Health First Aid available. While similar programs are cropping up across the country, Network 180 facilitates Youth Mental Health First Aid training for residents of Kent County.

Anyone over the age of 18, interested in helping others through issues like anxiety, depression, psychosis, or addiction, can enroll in a Mental Health First Aid course, which confronts the most common mental health challenges youth face, reviews typical adolescent development patters, and teaches a 5-step action plan for helping young people in both crisis and non-crisis situations.
The Mental Health Foundation has been reaching out to schools with its own multi-media education program led by social workers. The "Live Laugh Love" program covers stigma surrounding mental illness, signs and symptoms of depression and suicide, and steps to take when dealing with a mental health crisis.
Even smartphones are integrating into the culture of mental health wellness. With the Crisis Text Line, users can conveniently locate and communicate with a caring responder. The opportunity to text, instead of speech, makes the option even more accessible to those with difficulty speaking.
The first step
Just as mental health issues can be frightening and painful, the path to wellness isn't always the easiest to take. But there's no reward without risk, Waldron says. That focus has kept her committed as a counselor to instilling young people with the strength to feel safe.
She credits the "tangible truths" she's found in connecting with people as fuel to keep moving forward, and branching out. A little advice from a guidance counselor in college was helpful, too. And although she's finished school, Waldron still finds herself back on campus. She says she gets a lot of help and insight from the counselors and supervisors that have built their own practices. 
Mental health is a serious issue, and the more minds rallied around the cause, the better. Every individual can provide new insight and challenges for the field, but  they don't have to do it alone.
"I am honored to be able to walk alongside people as they try to figure out life’s challenges," Waldron says.
The heart of Brave was founded on meeting people where they are, and Waldron is hoping that, with enough work, will hopefully set them off on a path to where they want to be. 

For more information on Allison Waldron and Brave Grand Rapids, visit http://bravegr.com/
Urban Innovation Exchange highlights the people and projects transforming West Michigan through sustainable efforts. Matthew Russell is the editor for UIX Grand Rapids. Contact him at [email protected].
Photography by Steph Harding
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