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Meet the star athlete getting fellow players to take a stand against sexual assault.

Shocked by the Steubenville assaults, Jerome Baker decided that it's time for athletes to publicly commit to ending gender-based violence.

In December 2012, when the sexual assaults in Steubenville, Ohio, made national headlines, the impact hit high schooler Jerome Baker close to home.

As a star football player in his hometown of Cleveland — just two hours away from Steubenville — he noticed people started to act differently around him. And not in a good way.


"Not sure if I should back away slowly or run..." GIF via "Futurama."

When he'd tell people that he was a football player (just like the young men who assaulted the young woman in Steubenville), he felt like they immediately saw him as a perpetrator. He didn't like it, and he wanted to do something about it.

And it wasn't just that he wanted to set himself apart. (There's a reason the #NotAllMen meme isn't useful when it comes to conversations about sexism. They derail the conversation by taking the focus off the prejudice the women experience and onto men.) Baker wanted to take responsibility and do something bigger to address the issue of gender-based violence.

What he did is an amazing example of how a single person can spark a meaningful cultural shift to help end sexual violence.

After Baker talked with his neighbor and mentor Tyrone White (lovingly called "Coach Ty" by his students), founder of anti-sexual violence group Whoaman, the two decided to reached out to the top 31 high school football players in the area, asking them to take a public pledge to end violence against women and girls. Part of the invitation read:

"In the pledge we will promise to treat women and girls with respect and speak up if we witness or hear of assaults — to stand as a protector and speak out against perpetrators.

Let's be the voice that prevents assaults like what happened two years ago involving members of Steubenville's football team. Let's use our status as athletes to encourage change and promote behavior that respects women and girls and does not bring harm to them."

Here's the awesome part: Almost all the top players agreed to take the pledge. Better yet, when the day came for the group to take the pledge on camera, Baker was surprised to see that 50 athletes had come to participate.

Just a fraction of the athletes in attendance. Image via Tyrone White/YouTube.

Turns out that they'd heard about it from their friends and decided to join. Baker didn't stop there. He knew that how we talk about women, girls, and sex matters. And as one of the top high school players in the country, he decided to use his platform to influence other male student athletes.

He urged them to speak up when a teammate says something that contributes to a culture of disrespecting women, like slut-shaming or making rape jokes. No easy task in the face of high school machoism and peer pressure. And yet — Baker made an impact. A student from a different high school came to him, discouraged by the taunting he'd get when he spoke out again sexist speech. Baker was able to lift his spirits enough to keep on.

Now a player at Ohio State University, Baker is continuing his anti-violence work on his college campus.

Baker, giving a post-game interview about going to Ohio State. Image via cleveland.com/YouTube.

He recently asked the head coach Urban Meyer to allow team members to take the pledge. While the coach has declined for now (for unknown reasons), Baker's still hopeful for change.

An initiative like this is more important than ever.

A recent survey of college campuses found that over 27% of women and more than 30% of transgender and gender-nonconforming folk reported being sexually assaulted at school. We have a long way to go — and we need to start doing the work before people take a step on campus.

Work like Baker's is part of a winning movement to end sexual violence by attacking it at its roots. It's time to put a stop to rape ... before it happens.

Photo by Richard Potts/Flickr.

Baker's high school had little to no sex or anti-sexual assault education. With 40% of women reporting victimization before the age of 18, Baker's pre-college efforts show how it's better to start anti-rape training sooner rather than later.

Sexual assault is not an individual issue. Almost 47% of rapes and 82% of sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows. This is something that communities have to address collectively. That's why Baker's leadership is so important. In the wise words of Coach Ty, that Baker shared in an interview with SB Nation:

"People are going to follow you no matter what. If you're doing the right thing, they're going to follow you. If you're doing the wrong thing, they're going to follow you, too. It's just a matter of which one you want to do."
Connections Academy

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

True

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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