As soon as 21-year-old Sag Harbor resident Allura Leggard was approached about creating a video series focused on mental health, she knew she had to be a part of it.
“I think the conversations around mental health have been limited, and I think it’s something that more people need to be talking about,” the Ithaca College senior said. “Most of the time, people don’t get the help they need. If I could help in any way open doors to let people express their feelings and know there is help and there are people you could talk to — that you are not alone — of course I’m going to take the opportunity.”
With Ms. Leggard’s major in journalism and minor in African diaspora, Organización Latino-Americana of Eastern Long Island Executive Director Minerva Perez knew she’d be the perfect fit for what she was looking to achieve.
“I became an Allura fan after seeing some of her insightful work,” Ms. Perez said. “I’ve been hoping to find an appropriate project and a window of time and it finally happened.”
Access to help and understanding of mental and emotional health was critical before the COVID-19 pandemic, Ms. Perez said. And now, she thinks the isolation, fear and desperation some children and young adults are living with can threaten to cripple their future if hope and access are not firmly in place as the fight against the coronavirus continues.
“While OLA was founded as a Latino-focused nonprofit in 2002 working to build more equity for Latinos in basic and critical areas of life … we have established that we cannot hope to bring benefit and protection to some without bringing it to all,” Ms. Perez said. “We are a small organization, but we’ve taken on challenges that impact a great number of people, such as crisis food access for the homebound, public transportation and now mental health for children, adolescents and families.”
The nonprofit launched a survey endorsed by State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. for 12- to 29-year-olds seeking to learn what challenges they experience — mental health proving critical — and how they prefer to receive help. OLA is building programmatic offerings that will help support and activate young leaders from the community, and the video series is just one way. The material has also been translated into Spanish to reach as many people as possible.
“No other organization has sought this type of regional data directly from those most effected,” Ms. Perez said. “We need adults, parents, schools, law enforcement, etc. to understand what youth is facing — then, and now with COVID, and we need better plans that they have a hand in creating. We don’t want to speak for youth, we want to give them the mic and the platform to speak for themselves.”
Through Ms. Perez, Ms. Leggard was connected to Jade Stoute and Lily Crane-Newman, both Sag Harbor residents who were the subjects of the first two videos in the series. Another is scheduled to be released in December or January, after the college student finishes her first semester.
Ms. Stoute, who hails from Trinidad, had to deal with struggles after the loss of her father. Ms. Crane-Newman, from England, recently began experiencing panic attacks.
“I was suffering in silence,” Ms. Crane-Newman said. “Panic attacks come in all shapes and sizes, and they’re all terrifying. But I had no idea how many other people were suffering in silence alongside me, and I didn’t consider asking for help or space to breathe.”
To create the videos featured on OLA’s YouTube channel, Ms. Leggard met with her subjects, starting with Ms. Stoute in August, to get to know them. She then created a vision board of what she was looking to achieve, taking into consideration a setting where the girls felt most themselves, and once there, worked on shooting footage that set the right mood. Then, she let them tell their stories.
“I want people to express where they come from and who they are,” Ms. Leggard said. “I didn’t think that could ever happen without me getting to know the person I’m having a conversation with before, ensuring they are comfortable.”
She said she thinks the videos are effective because being only a few minutes long, they grab a viewer’s attention quickly and easily.
“We are lucky to have access to such talent and bravery,” Ms. Perez said. “We don’t want to speak for youth, we want to give them the mic and the platform to speak for themselves.”
Ms. Leggard said it’s been a rewarding and eye-opening experience.
“You never know what a person is going through, and this really stuck with that sort of mindset,” the college senior said. “I’d be lying if I said it was easy, but I’ve learned so much, from hearing what people have gone through, to just talking to these people and getting them to open up, to learning how to use my cameras. I’ve learned about the privileges that I’ve had that I never had to think of, because that’s what privilege is.”
The college student said the goal is that people engage in discussion, learn from the videos and the stories they tell, and also get others to listen.
“I want to make this a prominent topic in our everyday conversations. I hope it opens a dialogue for those young and old,” Ms. Leggard said. “We want to put forth the importance of breaking the stigma to increase access to mental health support. That was the main objective of this.”
Ms. Crane-Newman agrees.
“The stigma behind mental health issues only increases the isolation felt by those suffering from them, as does the lack of mental health services that they deserve,” she said. “People disregard mental health issues for many reasons — including the fact that they’re not often visible. You wouldn’t knock someone’s broken leg and then ask them why it hurts.”
She said that shame surrounding the subject leads people to blame themselves — constantly exhausted from the effort of trying to stay afloat.
“I believe if we all share our stories, we can help each other feel less alone, more empowered, less vulnerable and stronger,” Ms. Crane-Newman said. “Our struggles do not define us, and the state of our resolve remains in spite of them.”