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'Not a flaw, it's a disease': Parents and kids urged to talk openly about mental health

Tony Hwang pauses while delivering a speech January 24, 2023, for the victims of deadly mass shooting earlier that day at a ballroom dance studio in Monterey Park, CA.
Tony Spinelli
Connecticut Public
Tony Hwang pauses while delivering a speech January 24, 2023, for the victims of deadly mass shooting earlier that day at a ballroom dance studio in Monterey Park, CA.

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A forum at the Wakeman Boys & Girls Club in Southport on Tuesday focused on students and their mental health. Panelists, including host Republican state Sen. Tony Hwang, discussed how parents can better support the mental health needs of thier children.

Hwang said the first step to addressing mental health is to remove the stigma surrounding it. The more common these conversations are, he said, the more likely children will feel comfortable speaking honestly.

“Communicate and support each other,” Hwang said. “Our program is about raising awareness and destigmatizing mental health.

"But most important of all,," he said, is "to remind individuals struggling with mental health, and their loved ones and caretakers, that they themselves are never alone. There are people out there to support and help them.”

Jim Kuczo's 17-year-old son Kevin died by suicide two years ago. Kuczo said he never thought this would happen to his family. He believes more parents need to make space for their child to be open about how they feel.

“We don’t want anyone else to go through that,” Kuczo said. “At the very least, teach kids that mental illness is not a flaw, it’s a disease just like anything else. It’s not a you problem, it’s a genetic problem. But it can be overcome.”

Starting these conversations with your children involves asking open-ended questions that cannot be answered with “fine,” Kuczo said. Asking the question, “Tell me something interesting about your day,” is more effective in portraying your interest in what happens in your child’s life, he said.

Makayla Cunningham, a student at Fairfield Warde High School, said parents need be more attentive to things that are important to their children. Cunningham said there’s a barrier between what adults perceive as important and what kids think is important.

“There’s so much pressure between getting good grades and getting into the right school. High school is just becoming overwhelming and a competitive atmosphere,” Cunningham said. “Parents put too much pressure on always being number one, always being the best. They need to take a step back and support their kids and their dreams because it might not be the same as theirs.”

Pedro Espada, a student at Notre Dame Catholic High School, said if students are struggling with depression and have suicidal thoughts, the most important thing they can do is talk to someone about it.

“People don’t know how to communicate it. People don’t feel like they have the voice, they feel as a younger individual they have to keep it to themselves because no one else will understand," Espada said. "So, letting people know that they can tell someone — is really important.”

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call or text 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. Learn more here.

Lesley Cosme Torres is an Education Reporter at Connecticut Public. She reports on education inequities across the state and also focuses on Connecticut's Hispanic and Latino residents, with a particular focus on the Puerto Rican community. Her coverage spans from LGBTQ+ discrimination in K-12 schools, book ban attempts across CT, student mental health concerns, and more. She reports out of Fairfield county and Hartford.

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