Healthy Me

Nurse started nonprofit to help young people deal with challenges

A psychiatric nurse for more than 30 years, Vernelle Nunn has worked with many troubled youths.

“Adolescents commit suicide, take drugs, cut themselves and engage in other destructive behaviors because they are angry they weren’t invited to a party or they broke up with their boyfriend,” said

Nunn, RN, BSN. “These aren’t just kids from poor socio-economic backgrounds; they are often straight-A, private school children.”

Mental health issues such as anxiety and eating disorders, drug and alcohol addictions, low self-esteem and relationship conflicts are affecting children and teens in record-breaking numbers, Nunn said.

Many mental health issues and addictions in adults could have been prevented with earlier intervention, education and treatment, she added. “Their lives could have been so different, but children don’t always seek counseling or help with their problems.”

When they discussed the many social, environmental and personal stressors bombarding  young people today, Nunn and her professional friends were always in agreement — that someone should do something about it.

“Then one day, the moment of truth hit. I realized I should do something about it,” Nunn said. “Throughout the years, it has become clearer to me that we expect our youth to know how to battle against social ills, yet we have failed to give youths step-by-step instructions on how to combat them. I see directly how mental health is the core of an individual’s personhood, and that having a positive mental perspective is the key for youth to develop and transition into healthy adults and live up to their full potential.”

In November 2010, Nunn incorporated Healthy Me Inc., a nonprofit organization  with a mission to provide mental health education and life skills to youth who are dealing with anger, bullying, peer pressure, drugs, obesity, low self-esteem and other issues .

“It’s been my passion and my drive ever since,” Nunn said.

Healthy Me (www.healthymeinc.org) works with  schools, churches and camps to teach age-appropriate therapeutic and interactive courses that guide young people (8 to 17) into self-reflection and self-discovery.

“We go in with the principals’ and counselors’ knowledge and parental approval, and all our modules are taught by licensed and certified mental health professionals who volunteer their time ,” Nunn said.

It’s a preventive program, but these professionals know the issues and how to keep things flowing.

“Fourth- and fifth-graders are open, and when professionals hear something that might be a bigger problem, they can pass it on to counselors,” she said.

The curriculum includes six 40- to 50-minute modules that teach young people about human growth and maturation (what goes on inside the brain), developing positive self-esteem, building and maintaining healthy relationships, anger management, good nutrition and exercise.

“We’ve developed games and exercises so that the kids can grasp the information without our lecturing,” Nunn said. “For instance, when we discuss relationships we talk about who deserves to be in our inner circle of good friends, and ask them to draw circles. We tell kids that if there is someone on their team who isn’t adding something positive to their lives — who is disrespecting them or their coaches or teachers — they need to kick that person out of their inner circle. Some kids will actually kick the air in response.”

Learning about anger management  helps kids understand that anger is a normal feeling, but that it’s often triggered by  other feelings underneath, such as frustration, hurt or fear. They can learn to identify their real feelings and use new coping strategies instead of resorting to old behaviors.

“Most people don’t really understand mental health. For children who are living in a dysfunctional environment, this is our chance to show them what a healthy life looks like. We can give them a different perspective and show them how their lives could be different,” Nunn said.

Healthy Me instructors give kids wristbands and buttons as keepsakes and encourage them to wear them as a reminder  of the lessons they’ve learned.

One young girl wrote, “Because of you guys, I wake up every morning and I feel good about myself. You pretty much changed our lives. We appreciate that. Now we know how to handle our anger and we know who is really our friend. And most of all, how to feel good about yourself.”

Since kicking off its first program in April 2011, Healthy Me has taught more than 1,600 students and Nunn has received more than 100 letters from young people  thanking her .

“Mental health is such a taboo,” she said. “But I’ve always had a heart for people with mental challenges. Going into psych units in nursing school didn’t scare me. I believe I was called into this field. God has given me the opportunity to see so much and to do so much. This is my passion.”