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This man's open letter to bullies went viral. Now he has even more to say.

Kerry Magro wants to teach us 4 things about autism and bullying.

A few days before the beginning of October (which we should note is Bullying Prevention Month), Kerry Magro published a letter on his blog.

Soon after that, Magro's letter went viral on Reddit.


Magro has autism and he addressed his former bullies head-on in that letter.

He wrote:

"When I was in public school, I used to be bullied by people like you. You would see me in the corner, usually trying to keep to myself and wonder why I was there. Other times you would see me having issues reading out loud in class and snicker while I tried to pronounce different words.

You'd take my inability to understand sarcasm as a way to get me in trouble. Worst of all, you'd make me feel like an outsider when more than anything I wanted to fit in."

He also addressed others who bully people with special needs.

Magro may look like the picture-perfect professional today. He has a college degree, he founded a nonprofit, and he has a successful career as a public speaker, author, and consultant.

Magro, seen here speaking about living with autism in front of a large group. Photo via Kerry Magro, used with permission.

But his whole point is that autism doesn't look like any one thing. He challenges autism stereotypes every day. In his open letter, Magro has a few lessons to teach us all — not just the people who harass people with special needs.

Here's what we can learn.

1. Words have power.

In his letter, Magro wrote:

"Words can hurt people. Whether you understand the impact that you have, please try to put yourself in the shoes of the people you harass. If you did, you'd know that I struggled as a kid, and many people do at times … not only those with special needs but anyone who may not be classified as ... 'normal.'"

According to a study by the National Institute of Mental Health, victims of bullying are five times more likely to develop a depressive disorder, 14 times more likely to have a panic disorder, and 10 times more likely to have suicidal thoughts.

"I can tell you from experience that it's harmful to have those feelings bottled up when it's happening directly to you," Magro told me.

2. We should all be speaking up for each other.

"Some people can't stand up for themselves due to their different limitations when a bully attacks them," Magro wrote in his letter.

When Magro was younger, bullies would pick on him because he had communication delays, which also made it harder for him to speak up and let an adult know what was going on.

It's so important for kids (and adults) who see bullying to say something if they see something. Photo via iStock.

"Studies have shown that more than half of bullying situations stop when a peer intervenes," Magro told me. “That means educating our kids as much as ourselves about the harmful effects that bullying can have."

3. It's important to treat people with special needs like ... people.

Let's have an honest moment here: It's not enough to refrain from bullying a person with special needs. To be better advocates, we also shouldn't treat autism or any other diagnosis as a "one-size-fits-all" condition.

"It's important for people to understand that if you've met one individual with autism you've met one individual with autism," Magro said.

Two common statements that Magro hates hearing? "You don't look like you have autism" and "You have autism? I would have never known."

"When you interact with someone with autism, look beyond the diagnosis. I've always told people that 'autism doesn't define me' and 'I define autism,'" he added.

4. Accept people with special needs for who they are.

Magro wrote:

I wanted to share this letter with you today in the hopes that if you ever read it, that you will think again before you bully someone who may seem a little bit different than you are.
You may not know this, but 1 in 5 Americans today has a disability. I hope you can learn compassion.

Tolerance, respect, and compassion are key for building a community in which everyone, including people with special needs, can thrive.

"Bullying today is one of the most critical and sensitive topics our loved ones have to face," Magro told me. "Let's be ready for [the bullies] with unconditional love, awareness, and acceptance along the way."

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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