Students from Austin’s Akins High School joined the #StopTheStigma social media campaign to raise awareness about mental health needs in children and youth. Many of the students’ tweets were directed to Texas Representative Walter Thomas Price, IV (known as Four Price), chair of the Mental Health Select Committee.

Akins students participated in this “Twitter Storm” with the encouragement and gentle nudging of Emily Hammer, a social work master’s student who is doing her field internship at the high school.

“The students joined everyone tweeting around National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day (May 5). It was great to have some youth voices added to the conversation,” Hammer says.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, about one in five children aged 13-18 live with a serious mental health condition. And yet, Hammer says, it’s still hard for teens to talk about mental health and seek help.

“At Akins, we see the kids who come to the Student Support Services office for help,” she says. “But this is a large high school and there may be students who are not coming because they may be embarrassed, or because their families don’t approve, or many other reasons.”

Emily Hammer at Akins High School. Photo by Martin do Nascimento.
Emily Hammer at Akins High School. Photo by Martin do Nascimento.


Hammer spends two days a week at Akins, where she works under the supervision of the social worker on site, Colleen Arnold (MSSW ’06).

Arnold and her team of social work interns make sure that Akins students receive the support and services they need, from individual counseling and groups, to shelter options or backpacks and school supplies. One afternoon, for instance, a hesitant young man with a mop of dark hair stood by the door of the Student Support Services office as he asked where he could pick up his bus pass. Arnold got up from her desk to welcome him, and as she looked for the pass she made sure he didn’t have other needs – Had he been able to pay for his advanced placement testing? What about his cap and gown for graduation? Tickets for the prom?

As part of Arnold’s team, Hammer maintains a caseload of weekly counseling with six students and co-leads an anger-management group. Both activities are foundational for Hammer to develop and refine her clinical skills, that is, working face-to-face with clients experiencing socio-emotional difficulties.

But to fulfill her internship requirements, Hammer also had to come up with a project related to policy and advocacy — a macro-level project, in social work lingo.

“I’m in the clinical social work track, but I definitely see myself working at the macro level. I come from that arena, I worked at the Children’s Defense Fund in Washington, D.C., for three years before I came back to school. It was child advocacy work around federal policy, something that I’m really passionate about, so I was glad I was placed at Akins. I think the high school years are a really fascinating time, and a critical point for development in teenagers, in terms of future outcomes,” Hammer explains.

“Emily is very passionate about empowering students at Akins to be advocates and use their voice, become more informed, and get involved,” Arnold adds.

As she brainstormed about a macro-level project, Hammer drew from her experience at the Texas Institute for Excellence in Mental Health – a research institute at the School of Social Work – where she is a graduate assistant focusing on communications and social marketing.

“One of my tasks was to compile data from surveys and focus groups that the institute has done with youth in Houston and the Rio Grande Valley to capture what is their understanding of mental health. This got me thinking about what students at Akins might know about mental health and how we can spread the word about this issue within the school,” Hammer says.

Hammer set out to conduct focus groups and a survey to find out Akins students’ understanding of mental health and stigma. She also worked with a student at Akins Arts & Humanities Academy who volunteered to make a short video that raised awareness of these issues and reflected Akins students’ voices. The last step was to get students involved in the #StopTheStigma social media campaign.

Stop the Stigma

Stop the Stigma

When reflecting back on the semester-long project, Hammer says that it was very rewarding to open a space for Akins students to share their thoughts and feelings about mental health.

“One of the questions we asked to students was, how do you think people can make it easier to talk about mental health?” she says. “And they gave answers like ‘you show them that you have trust,’ or ‘don’t be judgmental,’ or ‘have an open mind.’ They revealed a social justice underline that I thought was really cool, especially for freshmen high school students.”

Posted May 4, 2016. By Andrea Campetella. Photo by Martin do Nascimento.