By Chris Horn, University of South Carolina

Most school assignments get turned in for a grade and are soon forgotten. But the speech Gweneth Gough wrote for a class at the University of South Carolina, a Sullivan Foundation partner school, became the foundation for new legislation recently signed by the governor.

Gough’s speech focused on ways to lessen the stigma surrounding mental health on college campuses, an issue the Summerville, S.C., native takes personally after having lost several friends and classmates to suicide and struggling with depression herself.

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“There is a tremendous number of people right now struggling with mental health issues,” says Gough, a public relations major. “We are having a mental health crisis, especially with our youth, and we are seeing younger students taking their own lives and struggling with mental illness.”

Gough shared her speech with South Carolina State Rep. J.A. Moore (D-Berkeley and Charleston counties), who suggested they meet to draft language for legislative bills on the topic, adapting it to the needs of middle and high school students. What emerged was a bill entitled the Health Education Act, which calls for mental health instruction in health classes for 7th and 9th graders. Gov. Henry McMaster signed the bill into law earlier this fall.

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Gough said her own junior high and high school experiences would have been better if such courses had been mandated.

“I think it would have made the school itself a lot more of an inclusive environment,” Gough said. “I feel like people would have talked to each other more whenever they felt like they were struggling. It’s not something that is taught or that people have talked about in high school and middle school, but with the Health Education Act in place, it’s going to bring the realization to a lot of kids that this is something that is real and serious. And it’s not something that they have to deal with alone.”

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According to TV news station WMBF, which reported on the legislation when it was introduced in January, suicide is the second-leading cause of death for young people in South Carolina. A survey of South Carolina teens by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 33 percent of teens reported feeling sad or hopeless during the year 2019. Worse, almost 20 percent had contemplated suicide during the same period, and 15 percent had come up with a plan.

The ongoing pandemic has exacerbated the problem for many students, Gough said, by decreasing social contact and intensifying feelings of isolation.

“If you’re living at home and you live in a bad household, you aren’t leaving—you’re pretty much stuck there,” she said. “And nobody is going out and socializing either. So everyone’s kind of feeling isolated, and I think that’s why we’re also seeing a spike in suicides.”

Gough hopes to use her degree in public relations to advance the push for improved mental health resources. “I would like to be a lobbyist, working towards the betterment of mental health, not only for schools but for society as a whole,” she said.

This story has been edited slightly from the original version appearing on the University of South Carolina website.

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