Centerstone creates comic book hero 'Spark' to engage conversations around mental health – Tennessean

Working in community mental health, my team and I teach students about topics ranging from depression to teen pregnancy prevention. And we’ve been duly schooled in how to communicate with our audience.
I can share the very best data to convince tweens and teens to heed our lessons, but if it isn’t presented in a compelling way then they may not pay attention. It’s so important to meet people where they are, and that’s how Centerstone Comics and our superhero Spark came to exist. 
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It started when a colleague saw a comic book about Martin Luther King, Jr. If the medium can teach history then it can convey our messages.
We proceeded to develop a teenage character named Amber Hernandez who is a student by day and “Spark” by night.
Next, we wrote stories about the issues we address—online safety, sexting, bullying, suicide prevention, underage drinking, and more. A visual artist brings our characters to life, and we do focus groups with students and parents prior to publication. 
Feedback from those focus groups advised us to make Amber representative of who kids are today. She’s a multi-racial student living in a single parent home. Her mother passed away, and she has openly wrestled with depression.
Whether she is appearing as Amber or Spark—whether she is outsmarting an online catfishing scheme or taking down an illegal opioid drug operation—her action-packed adventures always manage to relate back to reducing the stigma that too often surrounds mental health issues.  
It’s also important for our comic books to be teachable since they are used in classrooms, community centers, and beyond. Each Spark story includes a pullout discussion guide to bridge the communication gap between students and adults.
It’s a lot less daunting to read a comic book together than it is to just sit down and say, “Let’s talk about sexting.” This is a concept we’ve also expanded into our “Talk to Me” commercial advertising campaign that encourages healthy parent-child conversations. 
Anyone can join the conversation; our stories are available to read online for free in English and Spanish. While our funding allows for hard copies to be distributed in Tennessee where our grant is based, they’ve also been used by project officers in Washington, DC, and even landed in comic book stores. Requests for Spark comic books have come in from nearly 20 different states as well as The Bahamas. 
Finally, it’s important to keep these discussions going as major topics continue to unfold. Our latest story, Spark Unmasked, addresses matters of identity among LGBTQ+ youth.
We’ve encountered a lot of young people whose mental health suffers due to stigma and discrimination in this space. We’re also considering future stories about body image, diversity, and self-esteem. I hope our efforts will spark your interest and that you’ll join the conversation! 
Amanda McGeshick is Teen Pregnancy Prevention program manager at Centerstone, a nonprofit health system specializing in mental health and substance use disorder services. 


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