First Annual Youth Mental Health-Help Rally held in Franklin

Mountain View Intermediate fourth grader Gracie Parker leads local officials and members of the community on a walk from the downtown gazebo to Town Hall in a show of solidarity following a Youth Mental Health Rally on Sunday. Gracie has been advocating locally for more counseling and mental health services to help students through day-to-day stresses and traumatic situations. Photo by Bob Scott

Diane Peltz – Contributing Writer

Fourth grader Gracie Parker who went to Washington to speak about youth mental health, helped organize a Mental Health Pep Rally this past Sunday.  The town of Franklin came together along with several politicians and other prominent members of the community.  Ronda Drake, of Sonny’s Music Lounge, was approached by Gracie to help emcee the event. Sound technician Dallas Boyce provided and monitored the equipment.  Gracie and her family met Ronda when they attended worship gatherings there on Thursdays and on Fridays they would go listen to bands and musicians. As soon as Drake heard Gracie’s story she was willing to help support the cause. 

State Senator Kevin Corbin, county commissioners Danny Antoine, Josh Young and Gary Shields, Franklin Mayor Jack Horton, Franklin Chief of Police Devin Holland, School board member Diedre Breeden, and Union Academy Principal Diane Cotton, were all there to show their support.

What youths deal with today

Gracie knows all too well about issues surrounding mental health.  Her message is clear: “Speak up and stand with me.”  Incarceration, bullying, deployment, loss of a parent, domestic violence, sexual assault, foster families, suicidal thoughts, substance abuse, and health issues all plague today’s youth. 

A former principal speaks

Gary Shields was the principal at Franklin High School (FHS) for 21 years. He retired from the school system in 2010. He explained to the crowd that when he was principal, the FHS handbook spoke about breaking the rules. 

“Today, the handbook speaks about breaking the law. … When I was in fourth grade I didn’t know about mental health issues, I didn’t know about suicidal thoughts, I didn’t even know what the word ‘suicide’ meant. Deployment was not something you had to worry about, I am a Viet Nam Vet but we didn’t worry about that in fourth grade. Foster families was an unfamiliar term. Domestic violence may have existed but in fourth grade I did not have to worry about it.  Incarceration of a parent was not on the minds of a fourth grader when I was 10. Today, the majority of these kids live it and deal with it on a daily basis. That’s just not right.” 

School Board member encourages

Diedre Breeden spoke about the issues children are facing today.  She said that aside from being a school board member, she has three children and owns a local private counseling practice, and one of her focus areas is trauma.

“I often tell new clients who are nervously sitting in front of me for the first appointment, wondering how their reality will be perceived, sometimes worrying about being judged, that we all have  ‘stuff’ and none of us are alone in life…that there is a reason I chose my field of work.. because I’ve been through my own ‘stuff,’ and I get it,”  she explained. “Several years ago I spoke at an event to increase suicide awareness in this location, I was reminded when pulling some statistics on suicide, the stats showed that students as young as 10 years old were experiencing suicidal thought or even contemplating attempts. The stats aren’t any better today, with suicide being the 12th leading cause of death in the U.S., according to the National Institute of Mental Health. And more disturbing numbers … suicide is the second leading cause of death for those ages 10-14.”

Breeden explained that some of the more recent research from the CDC reports 1 in 5 youth witness violence in their community, 30% of students report increasing mental health issues since the pandemic. But another fact is only about half of those actually experiencing Mental Health issues seek and receive treatment.

“There is a significant increase in anxiety and depression in our youth, which has only been exacerbated by the pandemic, and yes, we are still seeing effects of this, as well as a connection to social media use. “Sometimes as adults we try to connect with the youth by saying, we get it, but honestly my heart breaks sometimes for the things our youth have to deal with,” said Breeden. “For the parents and guardians out there, I want to encourage you to be involved in your child or teens online activity. Monitor, pursue, don’t let your child drift away. Gracie and her friends have spoken about early intervention being prevention, which is true. One way we can prevent is by pursuit. Pursue their hearts. Our children are truly our future. They are growing up in a world where they are surrounded by influences that can break them down and destroy them. We can be influences that lift them up and teach them how valuable they are.

“I’m here to tell you, we are not defined by traumas we have experienced or the situation we’re dealing with. As a child, I dealt with my own difficult situations, but by the grace of God, I was able to use these things as motivation to break the cycle. Gracie, you’re not letting your circumstances determine your future… you are taking what has happened and breaking the patterns of those before you. That’s what I believe growth truly is. Breaking patterns, creating goals for the future and creating new patterns that move you closer to those goals. As you do this, and you live life together, your ripple effect grows too. I’m so happy to know you. I’m encouraged by you. Good job, sweet girl,” Breeden concluded.

A principal understands

Union Academy principal Diane Cotton also spoke to the crowd.  

“When Gracie came to me several weeks ago to pitch her ideas and ask me to speak, I was very proud of her determination and self advocacy skills,” said Cotton. “I am equally proud of Kennedy and Manny for being brave and speaking from their hearts. In my position, (Union Academy is an Alternative School) we spend the majority of the day listening to students and trying to find resources. I am also proud of my teachers for being attuned to students. We can tell when they step off the bus how they are mentally.”

Cotton relayed how she began asking her students, “what do you want the adults in the community and in your personal life to know about mental health?” The most overwhelming response, and actually the one thing every child said was, “Listen to me.”

She says, “tune in and listen, teach them how to overcome negative events in their life.”

“We need to create a new normalcy in how wellness feels. Engage in conversation in safe places,” she explained. “Offer opportunities to be able to support them with appropriate resources. We need to teach them to be introspective and also be introspective in how we respond. Be proactive because mental health is the same as physical health. Trauma is a cycle. When we heal ourselves we heal past and future generations. Provide your child with experiences and understand yourself the difference between Mental Health (the state of your well being) and mental illness (a diagnosed condition). We should never discredit how our child feels. Stigma must disappear from our community! A lot of parents don’t put their children in therapy because they themselves don’t feel comfortable in therapy. Members in the community would like to think our children live in Utopia and the problem is minor. On Friday, the 2022 National Child Wellness Survey results were released. 50% of children between 12-18 have contemplated suicide. Listen to understand, allowing them to have a voice to speak, affirming their thoughts. We must allow non-judgmental listening. Pay attention to words you use, put away your phone. Validate their experience. Be transparent and let them know you don’t have all answers, then reach out to a professional. Have conversations, talk at the family table, turn off the TV and put away those phones and have meaningful conversations. Write letters to each other, chat and play, talk over art activities, take hikes and talk, we live in the most beautiful area with trails, waterfalls and natural beauty.”

“This rally today is a good start to being proactive rather than reactive to this crisis affecting our children today. Let’s not allow this momentum to die. We must keep our children’s mental health in the forefront of our community. Just Listen,” she concluded.

Corbin touts Medicaid Expansion

NC State Senator Kevin Corbin, spoke about access to mental health care. He began with a story about a youngster in the ER.  

“There is a young child who has been in one of our local ERs of over 50 days. He is awaiting a space in a mental health facility in order to get treatment. Just like a person who experiences a heart attack, mental health needs are equally as important. Upon the expansion of Medicaid our state will be awarded $1.8 billion. I could wrap my head around the millions but this is billions. One billion equals 1,000 thousands. I will recommend to our State Senate to set aside $1 billion of the $1.8 billion, for mental health resources. I have also secured an additional Mental Health Counselor for each of the counties in my district.” 

A student pleads for a call to action

Emanuel Perez is an 11th grade student at UA. He spoke of his own struggles with mental health. 

“When my mom died,” he began, “I was 9 years old. My dad raised me along with my sisters.  I definitely feel that my mom’s death was the beginning to my mental health issues. I was depressed and didn’t know how to act. It was so hard to talk about her because no one wanted to listen. I just wish that adults in my life, back then, would’ve taken the time to help and listen.”

He continued, “I want the community to know that mental health is a real thing and kids are dealing with situations that kids shouldn’t be going through. Like bullying and problems going on at home, it’s too much for kids and I think they need someone professional who they can talk to.”

Drug abuse symptomatic of mental health issues

Franklin Police Chief Devin Holland addressed the crowd at the rally. 

As a law enforcement agency, we constantly deal with adults with mental health issues and substance abuse problems,” Holland explained. “The majority of our calls for service and crimes are related to mental health and substance abuse which typically are hinged onto one another. For many years WNC has lacked the resources and facilities to treat mental illness. I’m proud to say I am a part of a newly formed mental health task force that is comprised of many organizations and agencies in our region that has some facet in the mental health arena.  We have been brainstorming ideas and strategies to bring more resources to this area to improve treatment for mental illness and substance abuse. One of our biggest problems now is the drug use in our community. People are overdosing and dying too often. These people are your family and friends. Just a few weeks ago during the week of Easter the Franklin area had four overdose deaths. Three of those were within a 24-hour period. Law enforcement in Macon County responds to overdoses many times each week. Most are saved, but that’s not always the case. The drugs being used today are unforgiving to mortality. Narcan, the drug reversal medication, is not as effective on the new cocktail drugs we are seeing today. A user’s body also develops a tolerance to the Narcan reversal effects.

“The mental health system will never be perfect but if we can provide more help to more people then we can make a huge difference. Remember mental illness and substance abuse does not discriminate families or social status. We all have a part in the successful development of mental health and well-being. The Franklin Police Department will do our part and be involved however we can to improve mental health resources,” Holland concluded.

Stop Bullying

During the youth rally pamphlets for the “Stop Bullying, A guide To Fighting Back” were available. The many facets of bullying were explained. People might feel bullying is pushing someone smaller than you around, but it can go much deeper. Bullying is a behavior among children that involves a real or perceived threat of harm or control over another. In order to be considered bullying the behavior must be aggressive and may include verbal aggression, such as teasing, threats or spreading embarrassing information or hurtful rumors. Physical aggression involves hitting or chasing in a threatening way. Exclusion is considered bullying by making the person feel left out of a group. Social media posting is the newest form of bullying. It involves harmful, embarrassing or untrue information or pictures online or text messages (cyber bullying). A bully acts on an imbalance of power between him or her and the victim, whether because of physical size or strength, access to embarrassing information or popularity. Parents should know the warning signs. Does your child fear going to school? Are they avoiding school by claiming to be sick more often than normal?  Do they have more than a usual amount of cuts and bruises from active play? Have there been changes in their social life? Do they seem to be spending more time alone than before? Are they unhappy, anxious or insecure? Do they lack confidence and have difficulty being assertive? If you suspect your child may be being bullied, stay calm. Talk to them reassuringly, and get as many facts as you can about the bullying behavior.  

How Common Is Bullying

  • About 20% of students ages 12-18 experienced bullying nationwide.
  • Students ages 12–18 who reported being bullied said they thought those who bullied them:
    • Had the ability to influence other students’ perception of them (56%).
    • Had more social influence (50%).
    • Were physically stronger or larger (40%).
    • Had more money (31%).

Bullying in Schools

  • Nationwide, 19% of students in grades 9–12 report being bullied on school property in the 12 months prior to the survey.
  • The following percentages of students ages 12-18 had experienced bullying in various places at school:
    • Hallway or stairwell (43.4%)
    • Classroom (42.1%)
    • Cafeteria (26.8%)
    • Outside on school grounds (21.9%)
    • Online or text (15.3%)
    • Bathroom or locker room (12.1%)
    • Somewhere else in the school building (2.1%)
  • Approximately 46% of students ages 12-18 who were bullied during the school year notified an adult at school about the bullying.


  • Among students ages 12-18 who reported being bullied at school during the school year, 15 % were bullied online or by text.
  • An estimated 14.9% of high school students were electronically bullied in the 12 months prior to the survey.

A town comes together

When the rally was over the town came together and walked from the gazebo to Town Hall to show their solidarity. This town has likely not heard the last from Gracie Parker. Although her latest words are “I’m a freak without a circus” she is determined to change how mental health is dealt with in Franklin and possibly the country. Gracie is one 10 year old fourth grade student who has taken her challenges and is confronting them head on.

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