A photographer captured a track star's powerful MMIW statement. We all need to know what it means.

A red hand over her mouth. The letters MMIW painted down her leg. What message was this high school track star sending?

When photographer Alex Flett attended the WIAA 1B State Track and Field Championships at Eastern Washington University, he didn't expect that to capture an iconic image of a high schooler with a powerful message.

Rosalie Fish, from Muckleshoot Tribal School in Auburn, WA, showed up on the track with a statement painted on her body—a red hand covering her mouth and the letters MMIW down her right leg.


Flett, a Spokane tribal member, recognized the meaning immediately. MMIW stands for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women—a movement to raise awareness about the epidemic of native women going missing or being killed. The red hand symbolizes the voices of these women being silenced.

Flett told Upworthy that he knew he had to capture the image as soon as he saw Fish at the meet. "When I first saw her walking down the track to compete for her first event, I was taken aback," he said. "Then all I could say was 'WOW!' I wasn't there to shoot images of her, but I knew I needed to. To capture this moment and the statement she was making, and the possible risk she was taking."

He used Photoshop to edit the coloring of the photo, creating a stark black-and-white image with the red paint highlighted.

When I went to photograph the 2019 WIAA State Track and Field event at EWU this week, I never knew I would be so...

Posted by Alex Flett Photography on Saturday, May 25, 2019

Why MMIW? Because native women in the U.S. face murder rates far higher than the national average.

People in native communities have been talking about the epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women for years. According to the National Congress of American Indians, native women in some communities face murder rates 10 times the national average, but a lack of official data has made it difficult to seek justice.

For example, according to a study by the Urban Indian Health Institute (UIHI), 5712 indigenous women went missing in 2016, but only 116 were logged by the Department of Justice's missing persons database.  

The Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence explained some of the findings of the UIHI report:

The report, authored by Annita Lucchesi (Southern Cheyenne), and UIHI director Abigail Echo-Hawk (Pawnee), highlights tremendous gaps in the information about these cases documented in law enforcement records and news reports. Of 72 law enforcement agencies surveyed, only 56% provided any data in response to public information requests. Of those, 25% provided incomplete information. Media coverage was sparse. One-quarter of the total cases received any media coverage.
The study found that “reasons for the lack of quality data include underreporting, racial misclassification, poor relationships between law enforcement and American Indian and Alaska Native communities, poor record-keeping protocols, institutional racism in the media, and a lack of substantive relationships between journalists and American Indian and Alaska Native communities.”

There are multiple initiatives attempting to address the issue. The Red Ribbon Alert Project amplifies reports of missing or murdered indigenous women on social media. Savanna's Act is congressional legislation which would require updated data collection and protocols for investigating native missing person cases.

But individual awareness acts like Rosalie Fish's can help get awareness of the MMIW into the mainstream.

Fish's statement made a big impact at the meet, but an even greater influence after Flett's photo of her went viral.

Rosalie Fish won three state titles at the meet, in the 400-, 800- and 1,600-meter races. But her MMIW statement was what got people's attention.

"The impact Rosalie Fish had on everyone was huge to say the least," Flett said. "Everyone was talking about it, asking questions, many saying they never knew this was an issue."

After Flett posted the image of Fish to his Alex Flett Photography Facebook page, it took off. In just a few days, it's been viewed hundreds of thousands of times, which he hopes means more people will become aware of the issue.

"The main reason I think more people aren't aware of this issue is because there isn't as much talk about it out in mainstream America and definitely not enough light brought to the topic," he said. "I wanted to do anything I could to help bring awareness."

Flett hopes that his image "opens doors to conversations that need to be had about Murdered Missing Indigenous Women out in 'mainstream America' and not just among people in Indian country."

Kudos to Rosalie Fish for her courageous act to raise awareness for MMIW, and to Alex Flett for representing it so beautifully.

For more information about MMIW, see mmiwusa.org and follow MMIWUSA and Red Ribbon Alert Project on Facebook.  

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Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

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“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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