EAST ORANGE, NJ — The Darren Clark Jr. Memorial foundation hosted a Back-to-School Mental Health Day at Watsessing Park in East Orange on Saturday, Aug. 27. The event served more than 100 underserved students from Essex County, providing backpacks or messenger bags filled with age-appropriate school supplies to students who participated in the four activities meant to help them learn more efficient mental health coping mechanisms.
The Essex and Passaic counties chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness assisted in the mental health stations, which consisted of journaling, yoga, art therapy and a check-in chat with a therapist. The health departments of Essex and Morris counties, along with the East Orange Police and Health departments, contributed to the event by speaking with students and their families to inform them of options for mental health support within their community.
The Clark Memorial’s mission is to help school-aged children and their families find resources, such as counseling referrals and recommendations, and to create awareness by visiting local schools and community centers to openly discuss mental health and the concerns students face day to day.
The foundation was started by Deirdre Allette Asiema in honor of her son, who committed suicide at age 24.
“One of the very last things he asked me to do before he took his own life was to help the other kids like him and take all the money I had spent on him and would spend on him and spend it on them to assist with their struggles and get them the help he could have deeply benefited from,” Asiema told the Record-Transcript. “I didn’t have the resources or the understanding to really get what he was going through every day, and the only thing that I can do for him and myself, the only thing that aids the pain, is to devote my life to making sure no one else has to feel the pain I have from losing my only child. So that’s what I’ve been doing ever since. I make sure that these babies and their families know how to help them so that we can prevent suicides from happening.”
The event was publicized through social media and community relationships with organizations throughout Essex County. Younger students received backpacks filled with crayons, glue, scissors and other elementary school necessities. Middle and high school–aged students received messenger bags filled with pens, paper, folders and binders. A small portion of the office supplies were donated by the Staples on Route 17 in Paramus, while the rest of the donations were purchased by the Clark Memorial. The event also featured free hot dogs, snacks and cold beverages.
“We try to serve as a bridge between families that may not know what type of help they need and (where) mental health providers (are available). We also connect with schools to let them know that the burden isn’t all on them, and we can assist the families to find their way in the complicated system we have,” Asiema said. “You can’t imagine the loss until you’ve been affected by suicide, the feeling that you may have been able to do something had you had the ability to better understand what was going on. I really didn’t get what Darren was going through until it was too late, and now my passion is to let students in kindergarten through 12th grade understand that, even if they feel as if there’s no way that anything can help them, that there is, in fact, help, and they can get to feeling better through skills.
“We all need better coping skills, and I think it’s crucial that kids learn them as early as possible for the world we live in today,” she added.
Parents, extended family members and teachers can reach out to the Clark Memorial for support with programming or referrals through its website at darrenmemorial.com. The foundation’s next event will be Jan. 7, 2023, to recognize Invisible Pain Day, in collaboration with NAMI and Gov. Phil Murphy; on this day, the state of New Jersey will commemorate those who have survived the pain of their loved ones committing suicide.
“This is a day for those who live with their pain, the pain of losing those they loved, to be a bridge to openly discussing suicide in a way without the stigma attached so that we can end the epidemic of young students ending their lives,” Asiema said.
Photos Courtesy of Deirdre Allette Asiema