Hiking for Mental Health Awareness
Young people in New Hampshire stand at a critical point in terms of mental health awareness and resources as the issue gradually gains momentum statewide while funding for helpful programs still lags behind.
New Boston resident Ann Melim is working to change this, one step at a time. Literally. This Valentine’s Day, the veteran high school English teacher and mental health advocate will hit the snowy trail up Mount Washington to raise both awareness and funds to support young people in the state.
Melim plans on ascending the 6,288-foot mountain via the Lion Head Trail, reaching the summit sometime during the day before heading back down in hopes of completing a highly challenging day hike up New Hampshire’s highest mountain in severe winter conditions. Melim’s goal is to raise $5,000 for Chasing Jade Horizons, a New Hampshire-based nonprofit organization dedicated to raising awareness and access to mental health resources for New Hampshire’s young people.
Melim’s efforts come at a pivotal time for youth mental health in New Hampshire. The National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI), an organization solely dedicated to building better lives for those Americans affected by mental illness, publishes updated data each year concerning mental health statistics and the numbers for young people don’t look good:
One in five children aged 13-18 have or will have a serious mental illness, while suicide is the third leading cause of death for those 10 to 24 years old. 90 percent of those who commit suicide in this age group have some underlying mental illness. This issue affects school performance, too, as over a third of students with some mental health condition by age 14 eventually drop out of school altogether, the highest dropout rate of any disability group in the United States.
According to NAMI’s report, treatment for mental health issues fare no better, with the average time between the onset of mental health condition symptoms and treatment being eight to 10 years, a gap which can have devastating effects both short- and long term. For example, 70 percent of youth in state and local juvenile justice systems suffer from some form of mental health condition, a fact which has only recently started to gain state and national attention from both policy makers and the public at large.
For Melim, mental health is both a personal and professional passion. Having taught high school English for nearly two decades—the last 14 at Hollis Brookline—Melim knows the effects mental health challenges can have on young people and those around them first hand. Melim is well known at HBHS for her commitment to making connections with her students beyond the class content and getting to know them as people and ways she can help them during their high school years.
“As an educator, I have seen the impact mental health issues have had on students' abilities to learn and grow,” says Melim. “I’m concerned most about the stigma young people have to face today. Society can be relentless and judgmental.” Melim sees many of her students struggle with mental health issues on top of the challenges already inherent during a young person’s formative years and it motivates her every day to do a better job in and out of the classroom.
Melim is married to her husband Joe and the two have a high school-aged daughter, Isabel. Her family has provided continuous support for her through the years, both in her career and outside interests, which include outdoor activities of all kinds and traveling whenever she can. “I have struggled with mental health since I was a kid,” she says. “I know the stigma and live the experience almost daily. It’s not an unknown to me.”
Melim got her start in active fundraising in 2006 when a young boy in Goffstown needed funds in his fight against cancer.
“His parents were essentially home taking care of him and not working,” says Melim. “That was the first one.” This event sparked Melim to begin what has become a decade-plus effort to raise awareness and funds for those in need. Since then, Melim has climbed for scholarships at HBHS, Haitian relief, The Boys and Girls Club and suicide prevention. In 2013, Melim climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain, to raise money for a veteran who lost a leg while serving in Afghanistan.
Melim is climbing this week for more than money—she hopes her journey will also raise awareness of an issue many people in the state and country are just now starting to understand. She also hopes her own professional world will eventually take notice of this issue and take a leading role in helping those who suffer in its wake. “I would like to see more of a set curriculum for high school students that focuses on mental health. It should be as important as any physical education class. We need to educate the public and increase awareness and acceptance.”
Melim is no stranger to hiking in the winter, having been up Washington and many other peaks in New Hampshire’s White Mountains numerous times during the year’s coldest season.
“People always ask--why winter? And I always tell them it's where the challenge is, it’s when things are the toughest,” Melim says. “Plus I love to hike in winter so I figured that would be a good time to challenge myself with Washington.”
Besides being the highest peak in New England, Mt. Washington also resides in a region with some of the most unpredictable and brutal weather in the world. Temperatures can drop in minutes while winds can shift on the hour, bringing bone chilling weather conditions along with deep snow and ice.
Melim’s route is over eight miles and demands scaling over four thousand feet in elevation, logistics which would prove challenging during any season, let alone the deepest part of winter. Hikers often turn back in these conditions while others have required assistance from rescue teams. Some have even died. Thursday’s Mt. Washington forecast calls for light snow, temperatures in the single digits with the wind chill reaching twenty degrees below zero.
While Melim is well aware of these factors, it’s a challenge from which she will not back down. “It's a nice gesture to try to help people. We all should do it,” she says. “I believe it should be our number one motivation in life. To make others' lives just a little bit better.”