- Amanda McGeshick is the program manager for Centerstone.
My team and I, who work in community mental health, teach students about topics ranging from depression to teenage pregnancy prevention. And we are well trained in how to communicate with our audience.
I can share the very best data to convince tweens and teens to take our classes, but if it’s not presented in an engaging way, they may not be paying attention. Meeting people where they are is so important, and that’s how Centerstone Comics and our superhero Spark were born.
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Creating a spark through comic books
It started when a co-worker saw a comic book about Martin Luther King, Jr. If the medium can learn history, then it can convey our messages.
We went on to develop a teenage character named Amber Hernandez, who is a college student by day and “Spark” by night.
We then wrote stories about the issues we tackle: online safety, sexting, bullying, suicide prevention, underage drinking, and more. A visual artist brings our characters to life, and we hold focus groups with students and parents prior to publication.
Feedback from those focus groups advised us to make Amber representative of who children are today. She is a multiracial college student living in a single parent family. Her mother has passed away and she is openly struggling with depression.
Whether she appears as Amber or Spark — whether she’s outsmarting an online catfish scheme or taking down an illegal opioid drug operation — her action-packed adventures always manage to lessen the stigma that too often hangs around mental health issues.
It is also important that our comic books are learnable as they are used in classrooms, community centers and beyond. Each Spark story includes a pull-out discussion guide to help bridge the communication gap between students and adults.
Comic books are a great way to start a difficult conversation
It’s a lot less daunting to read a comic book together than to just sit down and say, “Let’s talk about sexting.” We have also extended this concept to our ‘Talk to Me’ commercial advertising campaign that encourages healthy parent-child conversations.
Anyone can join the conversation; our stories are free to read online in English and Spanish. While our funding makes it possible to distribute print copies in Tennessee, where our grant is located, they have also been used by project contributors in Washington, DC, and have even made their way into comic book stores. Requests for Spark comic books have come in from nearly 20 different states and the Bahamas.
Finally, it is important to keep these discussions going as important topics continue to unfold. Our latest story, Spark Unmasked, addresses identity issues among LGBTQ+ youth.
We have met many young people in this space whose mental health suffers from stigma and discrimination. We also think about future stories about body image, diversity and self-esteem. I hope our efforts will pique your interest and join the conversation!
Amanda McGeshick is a teenage pregnancy prevention program manager at Centerstone, a nonprofit health system that specializes in mental health and substance use disorders services.