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SALEM — More than 300 people of all ages gathered in blue t-shirts at Salem Common Sunday morning for the first-ever “The World Needs You Here” mental health awareness walk, organized by Mental Makeover, a nonprofit based in the city that seeks to combat the stigma surrounding mental health.
The event kicked off at 9 am with speeches from several local officials, including School Committee Vice Chair Manny Cruz, who shared deeply personal experiences of his own about mental health.
“I’m someone in this community who survived domestic violence twice and what I want to talk about is my own struggles with mental health. As a community leader, I’m not perfect. What I battled for most of my childhood was depression. I learned to build myself up into the person I am today.” Cruz paused to take a deep breath. “There was a time I left home, I went to Northeastern then came back to Salem and ran for legislature things were going great. That was until August when I lost two friends to suicide, John and Andy.”
Cruz choked up speaking about the experience of losing his friends, and told the crowd that “it’s okay not to be okay.”
“I was shocked to get a call from my best friend when I found out Andy took his own life, I tried to make sense of it. I took time off for three weeks and took a leave of absence from my campaign to deal with Andy’s family and his friends … when we need help we have to reach out.” Cruz said. “I open up about my struggles to give people the courage to do the same to seek help and know that you’re loved and we want you here.”
The walk itself began around 10 am Mental Makeover Co-Founder Chris Van de Stadt said the event was only the beginning of the work that needs to be done surrounding mental health.
“It feels great to see everyone out here. This is the start of the conversation and the only way it will work moving forward is to make sure people continue mental health conversations,” said Van De Stadt.
City Councilor-At-Large Alice Merkl said she was excited to see such a large crowd gathered Sunday morning.
“Mental health is a conversation that doesn’t happen enough. I’m so glad to see this happening and that so many people are here,” Merkl said.
At the event, raffle tickets were sold to raise money for mental makeover, which also seeks to empower young people to learn about mental wellness and talk about their own thoughts, emotions, and experiences.
Co-Founder Emily Lonergan said it was incredibly rewarding to see Mental Makeover’s work pay off.
“It has been an honor to listen to stories and experiences from so many of you conquering struggles, asking for help, fighting stigma, living with mental health disorders and so much more. I am proud that we, together, as a community are starting conversations about mental health and changing the narrative,” she said.