The Blaine County commissioners on Tuesday signed a proclamation recognizing May as Mental Health Awareness Month, following a year in which the COVID-19 pandemic “has exacerbated feelings of mental distress.”

This isn’t the first year that the commissioners have recognized national Mental Health Awareness Month. But the pandemic and its wide-ranging mental health effects have made this year’s proclamation “more important than ever,” Commissioner Angenie McCleary said during Tuesday’s meeting.

The proclamation recognizes the coronavirus pandemic as having “provided an increased understanding of depression and anxiety of the unknown,” and notes that “elevated feelings of hopelessness and distress in the year 2021 may have contributed to the increase of death by suicide in Blaine County.”

In it, the commission calls on Blaine County residents, businesses and institutions to “recommit our community to increasing awareness and understanding of mental health” and to “seek to further educate our residents” on the resources available.

“We know how disruptive and exceptional this last year has been,” Commission Chairman Dick Fosbury said. “It’s really been such an unusual year and we’re still faced with these ongoing challenges.”

Several local students testified at Tuesday’s meeting on the importance of mental health awareness, including a Silver Creek High School student who identified herself as Joanna.

At her previous high school, Joanna said, she would “act sick to stay home,” skip class if she was running late and “wouldn’t eat” if she was in an unfamiliar situation.

At Silver Creek, “I’m now more communicative, confident, and I’m actually willing to go out of my comfort zone because I’m seen and cared about,” Joanna said, thanks to “social emotional support,” smaller class sizes and participation in a mental health group.

Brittany Shipley, executive director of the Wood River Valley chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, encouraged all Blaine County residents to “make sure we’re being humans above all.”

“We don’t need to be mental health professionals, we just have to be human,” Shipley said. “Making sure we’re human and we’re caring and we’re supportive and we’re here for everybody, I just can’t stress that enough.”

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