Ellen Herlihy, junior co-president of Warr;ors, recalled feeling hesitant about joining the mental health club as its first member. A year later, she is proud to see the club has been a safe space for students to talk and support each other. 

“It’s not a club that you have to have mental illness or feel sad to join,” Herlihy said. “We try to include everyone so they feel like they belong to the club.”

Warr;ors, a student-run club at North Salem High School, aims to raise awareness of mental health through discussions, by bringing visuals and resources into schools, and by making reaching out for support more acceptable. The semi-colon indicates a pause in a sentence and symbolizes what people should do if they are contemplating taking their life.     

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Herlihy said she was suffering from anxiety last fall, but because of the stigma, she didn’t tell anyone about it until she joined the club. The support from club adviser Melissa Smith motivated her to share her feelings and encourage more students to join.
Smith, who is also a school counselor, recalled years ago a student who was hospitalized for depression came to her and suggested starting a mental health club at the school she worked at previously. Last year, she brought the idea to North Salem High School and started the Warr;ors.      

“We’re here to increase mental health literacy for teens to support their peers in order to feel comfortable to reach out if they need help,” Smith said.

Herlihy recruited for the club from a lunch table where she had set up a wood door which students signed to indicate their commitment to opening doors to conversations about mental health.   

Over the past year, the number of members has grown to 20. The club members meet every Tuesday to talk about mental health issues at the school, ranging from personal concerns to word choices. They decorated the school buildings with inspiring signs and posters to reduce stigma and presented at health classes. They are also in the process of painting another door and planting lavender to make essential oil.    

“As long as they’re making connections and feel like they’re included in something powerful, it doesn’t really matter what you do in the club,” Herlihy said.

The club has connected students with schools, parents and community organizations, and acted as a leader in the area. Last year, May 23, was “one of the best days” Herlihy had at the school when more than 450 students and 30 community organizations showed up at the first North Salem Mental Health and Wellness Fair, which was part of the club’s achievements.

The club members were also featured at the Putman and Westchester Boards of Cooperative Educational Services and New York State Suicide Prevention Conference.

To involve more students and schools, Herlihy has worked with Putnam and Westchester Suicide Prevention task forces on designing a curriculum for the club so other schools can create a Warr;or club on their own. The curriculum includes how to recruit members, find advisers and seek community support. Herlihy said her dream is to help build a Warr;or club at schools across the county in the next three years.      

The Warr;or was taken as the “biggest” student push by Adam VanDerStuyf, the director of special education and pupil personnel services. He said over the past couple years, the district realized the need to raise awareness on mental health. 

“Prior to that were a lot of adults making sure we have resources in place to support students, but one of the missing pieces at the time was the students involvement,” VanDerStuyf said.  

One in five youths between the ages of 7 and 18 have a diagnosable emotional, behavioral or mental health disorder, while at least half of children ages 6 to 17 do not receive the mental health care they need, according to the Association for Children’s Mental Health.

The district has formed a team including four psychologists and four school counselors to reach out to the community. They provide training to the faculty, present mental health issues in the classroom and offer counseling for small groups and individuals.     

“What we’re trying to do is proactively put systems in place to recognize and identify problems, and then be able to provide help,” VanDerStuyf said. “We recognize that if we’re not proactive and addressing mental health and wellness, people aren’t able to fully access their education.”

VanDerStuyf added that the education board and community recognize the importance of mental health education and put efforts into providing resources to support the community.

“We’ve been very thankful and appreciative with the support from the district and the community,” VanDerStuyf said. “As they embrace the support, that really is able to have a positive impact on our students and teachers.”