Darien teens plant hope for those facing mental health issues

DARIEN — A thousand yellow tulips will be popping up around town as a way to raise awareness about mental health and spread hope.

“I think that in this day and age, you can’t go anywhere without knowing someone who’s struggling with their mental health,” noted Juliette Johnson, a Darien High School senior who wanted to help raise awareness about the issue.

On Saturday morning, Johnson, 18, led a Yellow Tulip Project at several locations in town including the Darien Library and the front of Town Hall. More than a dozen volunteers from The Darien Depot’s Students Against Destructive Decisions group, the Darien Youth Commission, and the high school’s Smiles for Seniors club, helped plant 1,000 yellow tulip bulbs as visual “Hope Gardens.”

“Mental health is something no one really wants to talk about,” said Victoria Caruso, 16.

Both Caruso and Johnson were inspired by a program held last winter — in which they both participated as panelists — centering on the discussion of “The Stepping Off Place,” a teen novel about mental health by Cameron Kelly Rosenblum.

“There’s a significant number of young people dealing with it,” Johnson said, adding social media plays a role in augmenting issues.

“I think it’s not spoken of enough here in Darien public schools,” she said, “so I hope this is just something that starts a conversation.”

The Yellow Tulip Project is a national student-founded and student-run nonprofit that seeks to normalize discussions of mental health and encourage the creation of community to help support those involved in struggles.

“A Hope Garden is a garden of yellow tulips which acts as a physical reminder to all those who see it that there is hope and support, regardless of how bad things can seem,” Johnson said.

The gardening was done with the help of Alan Hyatt Landscaping, LLC, which volunteered some soil tilling to make the flower beds ready.

In the spring, Johnson said, when the flowers bloom, she and others will organize another awareness event in celebration, though the details are still being worked out.

“It’s a very big issue,” said Abraham Mustafa, 16, who helped plant bulbs at the library, noting how valuable it was to have people teens can talk to when they’re in distress.

Alicia Sillars, director of the Darien Youth Commission, said mental health problems among young people are pervasive.

“Some of it is COVID-based and some of it in a community like this is pressure-based,” she said.

The results of a recent surveys among teens in town, she said, found that often-times the students are putting the pressure on themselves, which she said was sad.

On Oct. 20, she said, the survey results were going to be presented to the community at Middlesex Middle School as part of the work of the Thriving Youth Task Force.

Two of Johnson’s teen siblings — Fritts, 14, and Charlotte, 16 — also took part in the planting Saturday. Both said teens in town face mental health issues.

“I think it’s a problem that’s not talked about enough,” Fritts said.

“And I think this kind of thing will bring more awareness to it,” Charlotte said.

John Novak, the new program director at The Depot, expressed his appreciation for the initiative.

“I’m just really proud of my kids,” he said. “They put this whole thing together (and) they did a really great job.”