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March of Dimes

When Germana Soares was three months pregnant, she went to see her doctor.

She was worried, as any expectant mother would be, because she had an itchy rash across her body. But since itchiness was her only symptom, her doctor simply treated her for allergies and sent her home with some medication.

It seemed to work.


Four days later, her rash had cleared up, and she stopped worrying. The rest of her pregnancy progressed relatively normally.

But when her son was born, the doctor noticed something wasn’t quite right.

Her son's head was slightly smaller than it should be, and it was a little asymmetrical, with the left side somewhat smaller than the right. Remembering her rash from months prior, her doctor ordered a series of tests.

Her son was diagnosed with microcephaly.

This condition not only causes a baby’s head to be smaller than normal, but it can also cause a number of other lifelong health problems, including intellectual and developmental disabilities. And in Soares' case, it was likely caused by a Zika virus infection (transmitted by an Aedes aegypti mosquito) while she was pregnant.

A mother in Recife, a city in Pernambuco, Brazil, holding her child with microcephaly in May 2016. Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images.

Microcephaly is usually considered a relatively rare neurological condition, but in Brazil at that time — especially in the northeastern state of Pernambuco where Soares lives — it wasn’t. In fact, her state was at the center of a Zika pandemic that hit South America between 2015 and 2016, and it saw a huge spike in the number of microcephaly cases as a result.

By Dec. 12, 2015, Pernambuco had reported 874 cases of microcephaly — more than any other region in the country.

Soares and her husband were afraid when they got the news.

They were scared of prejudice and discrimination, she says through a translator. They were so scared that they decided they would have to hide their son’s illness from the world. They thought it was the only way they could protect him from the kids who might pick on him, the adults who might make assumptions about him, and the society that might exclude him simply because he was born different.

But when Soares took her son to his one-month doctor appointment, something wonderful happened: She met Gleise Kelly, another mother of a baby with microcephaly, and they became friends.

They talked about their babies, how they both felt alone against the world, and how they felt misunderstood. Just talking to another person who was going through a similar experience helped them both feel so much better.

And then, over the next few months as they went to the doctor, they started meeting other moms too. They all exchanged phone numbers to continue their discussions outside the waiting room. They set up a chat group on a phone app called WhatsApp.

But Soares and Kelly wanted to go one step further, so they created the Facebook group União Mães de Anjos — the Union of Mothers of Angels.

Soares and four other mothers from the União Mães de Anjos. Image via the União Mães de Anjos Facebook page, used with permission.

The Facebook group started with just eight mothers, Soares says, but within two months, they had 200. Today, about 400 mothers across Pernambuco have joined.

The page became a way to share stories and to get advice on how to cope with the disease and with prejudice. It became a place to ask questions, a place to share resources, and an emotional support group. But slowly, the group also transformed into a way for them to make themselves known to the rest of the community — a community they felt wasn’t accepting of them or their children.

“I won’t sit around,” Soares says through the translator. “I am going to do everything I can to fight for my child’s future and I am not going to just wait for people to include him in society.” And the entire group of mothers feels the same way.

A group photo of some of the União Mães de Anjos mothers and their children. Image via the União Mães de Anjos Facebook page, used with permission.

União Mães de Anjos became their way to raise awareness about microcephaly and to fight for inclusion on behalf of their children. It gave them a voice.

And it worked. Their group started getting attention in the local press, and the mayor of Pernambuco reached out to them to organize a meeting so that he could better understand what they were going through and what the government could do to help them.

The meeting has now turned into a weekly phone call or in-person meeting, allowing the mothers to advocate on behalf of their children. And Soares says she has begun to see results. For example, there are now more neurologists working in the state to support them.

They also receive donations of diapers, food, and clothes, and the group distributes those across the state.

Of course, there is still work to be done.

Fighting prejudice doesn’t happen overnight, Soares says. Instead, you have to work at fighting it from the ground up — starting inside homes and schools — so that change can happen naturally.

“People should respect everyone’s children. They are human beings. They did not choose to be born this way — they are all victims of an illness that was unknown at the time,” she says. “Everyone thinks things will never happen to them — only to others. That is, until it actually does [happen to you].”

Germana Soares and her son Guilherme. Image via Germana Soares, used with permission.

Soares' son is now 18 months old, and while he shows some motor skill developmental delays due to his microcephaly, he is showing improvement every day thanks to some early stimulation and therapy.

Microcephaly exists and it isn’t going away just because people are uncomfortable with it, Soares says. The best thing they can do is raise awareness of it, help those that need it, and fight prejudice so that every child gets the respect and acceptance they deserve.

Courtesy of Elaine Ahn

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There are a lot of reasons to feel a twinge of nostalgia for the final days of the 20th century. Rampant inflation, a global pandemic and political unrest have created a sense of uneasiness about the future that has everyone feeling a bit down.

There’s also a feeling that the current state of pop culture is lacking as well. Nobody listens to new music anymore and unless you’re into superheroes, it seems like creativity is seriously missing from the silver screen.

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Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

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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.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“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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