Teen Aparna Ramakrishnan is cut out to be a leader influencing policymaking at high levels

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Teen Aparna Ramakrishnan with her team mates who have been pushing for a state Bill 1778 to become law requiring school ID cards to carry information on mental health outreach. Seen in photo, back Row Left to Right: Maddie Dote, Resse DeZur, Aparna Ramakrishnan, Luka Sereci, Sophia Hayes, and Anna Schmidt
Front Row Left to Right: Marissa Geovanes, Rithika Nagireddy, Lathika Potnuru, Reagan Black, Grace Ellinger, Money Bastin, and Katie Dalton.
Photo: courtesy Aparna Ramakrishnan

Naperville Central High School senior Aparna Ramakrishnan, 17, has excelled in almost everything she does. And she does a lot of things. She was captain of the girl’s golf team, part of the badminton team, member of Model United Nations, the  ambassadors’ club, and junior class council to name a few.

Yet, she is not the usual Indian-American high-performing student that many in the community have come to expect from children whose academic record is exceptional and who take on big tasks and seemingly accomplish them with ease, whether it be extracurricular activities or social service and community projects.

Aparna is always looking for answers and takes difficult challenges head on. .

She says she began to show symptoms of anxiety and depression in Grade 7, and it took her more than 4 years to get diagnosed. She got the help she needed. But she didn’t stop there.

“I reflected on why it took me so long to reach out and recognize my symptoms,” she says.

That is what inspired her to start a non-profit — Beyond Charity Chicago which advocates for mental health education as a necessity. The organization makes mental health presentations to kids and adolescents.

And these presentations are born out of the personal experiences of presenters.

“A recent study shows that 1 in 6 children have a treatable mental health condition, yet studies show that the average delay in treatment after the first onset symptoms appear is 11 years! Providing mental health education can allow students to recognize symptoms in themselves and others so they are able to seek help earlier,” says the website of the organization.

“We are peer-led which creates a sense of trust and a unique connection with our young audience since we were in their shoes only a couple of years ago,” it notes.

Born and brought up in Naperville, Aparna told Desi Talk she started Beyond Charity “after I went through my own mental health journey.”

She attributes the years of suffering from the symptoms to the fact that there was no way to receive education or learn about the issue which plagues many children.

“Had I gotten better education on mental health, I may have been able to receive help earlier,” she said.

And as she went along the path or organizing, she was inspired from listening to friends struggles as well as her own mental health journey.

“Listening to peers explain their experiences allows for trust and understanding, which is what I wanted Beyond Charity to have —  A safe space where students can learn from their peers,” Aparna says.

Aparna Ramakrishnan, second from left, with some of her team mates in the nonprofit Beyond Charity Chicago, which she founded to help overcome mental health issues. Photo: courtesy Aparna Ramakrishnan

Over the last year, Aparna has stepped into a wider arena.

She along with peers who work with Beyond Charity, are reaching out to the Governor of Illinois to sign into law, a piece of legislation that provides students with critical hotline numbers on their student IDs.

“Including hotlines for suicide prevention on student id cards was an idea that came to me from my sisters college id card,” she told Desi Talk.

“One day I was looking at her id card and there were multiple helplines, attendance lines, and student resources. I took out my own id card to find nothing of the sort,” she said.

“This inspired me to include similar resources on the backs of student id card for all students, as many don’t know that these resources are accessible,” she said, adding, “This allows students (to) recognize what’s available for them so they can reach out if necessary!” Aparna believes.

And that is how Bill 1778 which was passed by the Illinois legislature is now on Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s desk. Aparna and her friends are keen for it to be passed.

If the bill becomes law, its possible the new Student IDs could be in the hands of high schoolers and maybe even elementary school going kids, when the new school year begins.

But they don’t know when Gov. Pritzker is going to lay his pen to paper.

Aparna describes mental health as her “passion” now and advocating for those who are unable to speak out for themselves, as her mission.

She hopes that through classes like those presented by peers of Beyond Charity, will educate others on mental health so they are able to recognize signs and symptoms, and research effective apps that can support those struggling.

At Bethany Lutheran School on Nov. 18, 2020, speaking to students about mental health issues and how to become aware of them. Seen in photo – from left,
Resse DeZur and Aparna Ramakrishnan, founder of Beyond Charity Chicago. Photo courtesy Aparna Ramakrishnan.

“I want to change the face of mental health, so nobody has to struggle for as long as I did, so that nobody has to feel alone, and so that nobody loses hope,” says Aparna on the website.

Some of the reactions to presentations made on mental health by Aparna and her team in Beyond Charity, show the organization is making a dent.

“I learned about the importance of mental health. I also learned about how a lot of symptoms and mental diseases, while stereotyped, are actually much more complex than they seem. For example, I didn’t know much about OCD or ADHD, until today,” said one student.

​“I learned a lot about anxiety and depression and all the different types of mental disorders you could get. I learned how to deal with stress and anxiety with techniques like the 3-5-7 breathing method, and the 5-4-3-2-1 strategy. I don’t think I have mental disorders, but I definitely am stressed out at times so I think these methods could also help with that,” said another student.

A parent who attended the presentation said they were “very impressed by the students.”

“… it was, at times, hard to believe they were just high school students. They drew on experiences that would be hard for many people to share and shared those experiences and their knowledge articulately, intelligently, and kindly,” the parent commented.

“I liked how each slide focused on each mental health issue and also gave multiple ways to help. I liked that the high school presenters had first-hand accounts with mental health, and were able to answer questions more accurately,” said another student.

Parents appeared to like the idea of the students reaching out to not just their peers but also to parents and teachers.

“(we always tell our child that nothing he talks to us is too trivial or weird and hopefully by us doing the same, he remembers that) But, we also feel that sometimes messages come more clearly and stick when it comes from peers (even slightly older ones),” the parent said.

“After yesterday’s presentation, we had a very frank family discussion and it really seemed that these high school students know how to connect with other people, especially younger peers at times when they are starting to handle more and more responsibility and becoming young adults,” the parent went on to say.

The reactions reveal how, as a young leader, Aparna and her peers are learning the basics of outreach and lobbying, and the making of policy that affects the day-to-day lives of students.

According to Beyond Charity, the organization has touched 11,000 students in one year.

And while the impact cannot be easily measurable, House Bill 1778 also known as Beyond Charity Law, if signed by Governor J.B. Pritzker, will require schools statewide to provide that hotline on the identification cards of students in grades 6 through 12.

The description of Bill 1778 says, the ID cards “shall provide contact information for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (988), the Crisis Text Line, and either the Safe2Help Illinois helpline or a local suicide prevention hotline or both on the identification card.”

It also “Amends the Mental Health Early Action on Campus Act. Provides that if a public higher education institution issues student identification cards to its students, the institution must provide contact information for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (988), the Crisis Text Line, and a local suicide prevention hotline on the identification card.”

Not just that, the Bill also “Requires the contact information on the school’s or institution’s card to identify each helpline that may be contacted through text messaging.”

In addition, it “Provides that the contact information shall also be included in the student handbook and student planner if a student planner is custom printed by the school or institution.

Aparna and her team members have appeared on major media including CBS, Chicago Tribune, Chicago 5, Psychology Today, and several other outlets.

The Bill specifically calls for the legislation to become effective July 1, 2022.

As for when Gov. Pritzker will actual sign Bill 1778 into law, Aparna says, “We have no idea! Hopefully this year!”

 

 

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