By Frances Clause
After the unexpected death of a beloved Youngstown tattoo artist, the community is making a difference. A free mental health support group met on Sept. 12 at Westside Bowl to beat the stigma of mental illness.
Angi Westhead, the group’s organizer, said the purpose of creating it was to relate to others, discuss feelings and find positive coping skills.
“When I couldn’t find a support group around Youngstown, I knew it was time to form one,” she said. “After all that has happened recently, especially with losing a regular at Westside Bowl who took his own life, change needs to happen quickly.”
Zech Whitby, a tattoo artist at Bitter Hearts Tattoo and Westside Bowl customer, passed away on Sept. 6. He left behind a Facebook post minutes before his death, reminding people why opening up about their mental health is important.
Westhead said she hopes to build a positive community for people who are struggling internally like Whitby did.
“There are a lot of people affected by mental illness,” she said. “I decided to hold the first support group meeting here because Westside Bowl is an uplifting environment with supportive staff.”
Nate Offerdahl, one of the owners of Westside Bowl, said he was honored to be approached by Westhead about hosting the group.
“[Westside Bowl] has always believed that being good citizens and caring neighbors of the community is important,” he said. “These qualities are key to creating a space where everyone feels welcome, and people can come together.”
Elliot Kwolek, a graduate student at Youngstown State University and a member of the group, said he felt the welcoming environment immediately.
“Angi is a very open person, and it helped others open up during the group discussion, too,” he said. “Her attitude and understanding toward everyone’s specific issues was very genuine and inviting.”
Kwolek said mental health support groups would benefit other students who are struggling and need a push in the right direction.
“As a college student, it is easy to have feelings of depression and anxiety from a difficult semester or life obstacles in general,” he said. “Instead of holding these feelings inside, people will be able to have a judgement-free zone where they can express themselves.”
Kwolek said he believes all students struggling with a mental illness should try to attend a meeting with the support group at Westside Bowl in the future.
“Everyone has a different way of managing their mental health and a support group may be the best method,” he said. “For others, one-on-one counseling may work best. Regardless, students should not be intimidated by either of these options.”
Anne Lally, the assistant director of counseling services at YSU, said students should utilize counseling services to address issues that need to be changed in their lives for improvement of life and relationships.
“Counseling provides an objective, safe and confidential environment for students,” she said. “If a student is struggling with an issue that has become overwhelming, they are able to explore the issue and receive quality help from YSU’s counseling services.”
Lally said if a student knows a person with a mental illness, it is important to give them support to seek professional assistance.
“One should listen carefully and not judge when someone is talking about their struggles,” she said. “Reaching out and telling them there is professional help right on campus is the best action to take.”
Lally said mental health support groups like Westside Bowl’s is also effective for students, as long as they are making informed decisions.
“Students should ask what the group’s goal is and what they hope to achieve within it,” she said. “It’s also important for students to look into how the group is structured and if it has access to professionals, if needed.”
Elliot Kwolek- firstname.lastname@example.org