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Lake Travis nonprofit combats mental illness, suicide

Austin American-Statesman - 1/23/2020

Following the August 2018 suicide of one of her daughter's high school friends, Amelia Floyd coordinated a scholarship in the late Lake Travis High School student's name -- the Erik Kyle Hanson scholarship fund -- raising more than $10,000 in its initial offering. Three football players at the school were awarded the inaugural proceeds as the family requested.

But Floyd wanted to do more.

This fall, Floyd began a nonprofit organization in memory of Hanson who played on the Cavalier varsity football team.

With its name representing Hanson's initials, the nonprofit Engage and Heal Foundation focuses on promoting community awareness of mental health issues and strives to erase the stigma associated with such illnesses.

"What we'd like to achieve, overall, is to help our youth," said Floyd, an 18-year resident of Lake Travis. "Our community has grown tremendously over the last 20 years. We've lost too many kids. We've lost too many adults (to mental illness). Kids struggle, (and) we don't have all of the resources to handle it."

The social and academic demands are too great on today's youth, she said, with teens turning to drugs and alcohol to self-soothe.

With the foundation, Floyd has been working to fund calming rooms in every school in the Lake Travis district, physical spaces that would serve as a respite for students who become overwhelmed, as well as other resources that could be used in local classrooms. Recently, the Round Rock school district opened mental health centers at two of its high school campuses, aimed at supporting students' mental health needs.

Plans are in the works to discuss the foundation's goals with Lake Travis' district staff in the near future.

"Many parents may not know how to see or identify the early warning signs in their kids," said Engage and Heal board member David Sheehan. "If someone has a broken arm, has cancer, heart disease--they have an illness, and boom, they're at (Baylor) Scott & White (hospital). They get immediate help, and there's no stigma associated with that. But with mental health, I think for many parents and families here in Lake Travis, if they haven't had direct firsthand experience or training, they don't even know what's going on. Often, it's the old 'pull yourself up (by) the bootstraps' if somebody's not feeling motivated."

According to Kathleen Hassenfratz, a foundation board member and licensed professional counselor who formerly served as Lake Travis school district's Health and Social Programs coordinator, two surveys of Lake Travis students in grades seven through 12 conducted during the 2017-18 semesters showed "our kids reported higher than national averages on depression, feelings of disconnection, stress and suicidal ideation."

Hassenfratz also runs a nonprofit on suicide prevention, with teen organizers stating "listening" as being most important when it comes to parents' responses to their children's mental health needs.

"We need to hear them when they say, 'We're stressed,'" she said. "That stress of today is not the same as when we were growing up. If you try to dismiss it in any way, (children) feel that we're not getting it because the stress is different. It's more expansive in every facet of their life."

The issue of mental illness is prevalent in the Lake Travis area, although "we don't always see it on Facebook," Sheehan said.

"A lot of people always try to put out there 'everything's fine' but things are not always fine," he said. "I have family, friends and clients who suffer terribly from anxiety, depression, (and) on the range of bipolar."

The foundation hopes to make conversations about mental health more commonplace among parents, educators and community members, Sheehan said.

"There's a lot of people who struggle with one or more forms of mental health (illness)," he said. "And, it's OK. We can talk about this and there's ways that people can get help."

Hassenfratz enumerated familiar warning signs of mental illness in individuals, signaling a need for assistance: drastic changes in mood or behavior such as fixating on a subject; daily functions not being accomplished such as hygiene or communicating with friends; giving away things; mentioning that life would be better without them in it; and atypical marks or scratches around wrists or arms as signs of self-harm.

A mother of two children with a background in fundraising, Floyd is now planning the foundation's kickoff event, Bubbles & Bags, on Feb. 27, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Lakeway's Flintrock Falls Country Club. Featuring a presentation by Bob Guiney, the former star of "The Bachelor" television series, the luncheon program includes a raffle of high-end purses, with sponsorship opportunities ongoing. A mini-golf tournament fundraiser at Spicewood venue, The Heirloom, is also in the works for this spring.

All of the foundation's board members have been personally affected by mental illness, with some having close ties to the Hanson family, Floyd said. Although the group's work is now focused on local youth, she said the organization's next step is to expand its roots to encompass a statewide initiative for improving mental health for all Texans.

"I vowed on (Hanson's) casket to make a positive out of a negative," Floyd said.

For more information, see Engage and Heal Foundation, @engageandheal on Facebook.

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