After spending a year doing virtual schooling, Huda Ahmed, a senior at West Forsyth High School, noticed that her peers were struggling with mental health issues related to stress and anxiety.
Being a member of DECA, Ahmed chose to research mental health for her community awareness project, highlighting “mental health awareness” and “strategies to destress for young people.”
“It seems like it’s more of the younger generation that feels like they missed out on really important parts of their childhood or adolescence because of mental health issues or [the pandemic],” Ahmed said.
“I want to reassure people that your mental health is not something you should ever be ashamed of or hide from the world,” she said. “So many people struggle with things daily.”
Ahmed said she was inspired to explore animal therapy after seeing how puppies brightened her classmates’ day.
She said that at West, one Friday each month, students are “able to choose how they want to spend their time” in an effort to help them destress and relax. One of the programs students can sign up for is designated time to play and socialize with puppies.
“A lot of times, we have cute little puppies come into school, and that’s what everyone wants to do every time,” Ahmed said. “It’s always full, and it’s so interesting how that bit of time with puppies can make someone so happy.”
Ahmed said she has been working at WildeWood Farm as a social media intern for school. WildeWood offers equine therapy for “troubled children and teens” to help them “recover from emotional and physical traumas.”
After researching types of animal therapy and witnessing the beneficial impacts of it from school and her internship, Ahmed decided to partner with WildeWood to host a fall festival designed to spread awareness for mental health.
Using “business terms and techniques,” Ahmed said that she was able to work for “at least an hour and a half every single day” and plan an event that reached “as many people as possible.”
“If even just one person is helped by what I’m doing, then it’s all worth it,” Ahmed said.
While Ahmed said she “had the business stuff down,” she said she was “the type of kid that was afraid of dogs and cats” growing up.
“I was nervous [about the project] at first, but now, me being able to be around horses, pet them and help take care of them is really neat,” Ahmed said. “One time, I learned how to clean out horse hooves which was super terrifying but fun at the same time … I learned how to relax around the animals, and now, being around them is so calming.”
While research was “good to have and know,” Ahmed said that the first-hand experience she received from the animals was “so beneficial … to my mental health.”
“It honestly helped me build self-confidence and strength,” Ahmed said. “And, the owner [of WildeWood], Ms. [Hannah Zapletal], has been super encouraging.”
Ahmed said Zapletal helped contribute to the relaxing atmosphere of the farm, and she stressed the importance of surrounding yourself with encouraging people.
Leading up to the fall festival, Ahmed said that she conducted a survey across Forsyth County residents aged 13-20 to see how often students felt stress or anxiety. The survey showed that about 82% of students said they felt stress or anxiety daily.
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“I mean, it’s like my peers all saying that they’re stressed or anxious, so it’s important to me,” Ahmed said. “I want to reassure people that your mental health is not something that you should ever be ashamed of or hide from the world. So many people struggle with things every day.”
Ahmed said the “fall festival was a big success” in helping her spread the word about her project and planting a seed of awareness in peoples’ minds about the importance of mental health.
Afterward, Ahmed said she has spoken at seminars at West, explaining to her peers how to prioritize their time and energy and how to recognize different types of stress, especially during testing season.
“With midterm and testing seasons in general, it’s important for students to be aware of their mental health,” Ahmed said. “I know how important it is from first-hand experience.”
Ahmed said she will present her project to a panel of professionals in Atlanta this month, explaining what she has learned and how bringing awareness to the topic of mental health has impacted her peers beneficially.
She is also looking forward to explaining the impacts of animal therapy as a viable form for people to relax and recharge instead of common types of relaxation like meditation and yoga, which may not work for everyone.
“[Mental health is] just as important as your physical health. You have to take care of yourself, so there’s no shame in that,” Ahmed said.