Empowering teen girls to promote mental health

By Briana Vannozzi

As an international boxing champion, Mia St. John was known for her strength in the ring. But outside, few people knew the Mexican-American athlete’s life was plagued by one struggle after the next.

“Two and a half years ago my son committed suicide and my son was also an addict,” she said.

St. John’s biggest battle was with mental illness, both her own and in her family: alcoholism, drug use, obsessive compulsive disorder. She shares her story with young females now to empower them and open the dialogue around mental health without fear of judgement.

“You’re not a monster, you know, reach out and get help. If you’re feeling suicidal, reach out to someone. There are others, and I’m an example, there are others that have these disorders and you can still accomplish something great in life. You can still accomplish your dreams,” said St. John.

Every word being absorbed by more than 200 young women at an empowerment conference held at Seton Hall University today put on by the Family Service Bureau of Newark, an affiliate of the New Community Corporation.

“We want to teach them as soon as possible, prevention is part of this program, so the sooner we can get them the better it is for us,” said Manuela Garcia, executive director of the Family Service Bureau of Newark.

There’s strong research from the Child Mind Institute suggesting teenage girls are more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with anxiety and depression as boys. And that puts them at greater risk for mood disorders as they become adults.

“I feel like a large factor is due to social media. It, like, constantly upholds girls to try to make themselves fit into a body shape, or be like a certain celebrity or something like that. But the problem is that we’re all our own unique individual. We can’t change who we are no matter how hard we try,” said Chikama Onwunaka, graduate of the St. Vincent Academy in Newark.

St. John’s daughter and mental health advocate Paris St. John told the girls being vulnerable is important for their growth.

“So we’re afraid to loosen the screws and admit we need some help, and we’re not always going to be perfect,” she said.

It’s easy to do when you can take one picture, put it up and make your life look so different.

“Exactly, yes absolutely” said Paris.

The girls attended workshops on cyber bullying, domestic violence, teen pregnancy and sexual health with the hope they’ll take this knowledge and spread it to their peers. Remembering to use their motto when faced with adversity — always fight like a girl.