Centerstone Creates Comic Book Hero ‘Spark’ to Start Conversations About Mental Health

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  • Amanda McGeshick is the Program Manager for Centerstone.

Working in the field of community mental health, my team and I teach students about topics ranging from depression to teen pregnancy prevention. And we have been duly trained in how to communicate with our audience.

I can share the best data to convince tweens and teens to heed our lessons, but if it’s not presented convincingly, 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 was born.

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Creating a spark through comics

It all started when a co-worker saw a comic about Martin Luther King, Jr. If the medium can teach the story, they can deliver our messages.

We then developed a teenage character named Amber Hernandez who is a student by day and “Spark” by night.

Then we wrote 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 before publication.

Feedback from these focus groups advised us to make Amber a representative of what children are like today. She is a multiracial college student living in a single parent home. Her mother died and she openly struggled with depression.

Whether she’s appearing as Amber or Spark, outwitting an online catfishing scheme, or taking down an illegal opioid drug operation, her action-packed adventures always manage to reduce the stigma that too often surrounds mental health issues.

It’s also important that our comics are teachable as they are used in classrooms, community centers and beyond. Each Spark story includes a tear-out discussion guide to bridge the communication gap between students and adults.

Comics are a great way to spark a difficult conversation

It’s a lot less intimidating to read a comic together than to just sit down and say, “Let’s talk about sexting.” It’s a concept we’ve also extended to our ‘Talk to Me’ commercial advertising campaign which encourages healthy conversations between parents and children.

Anyone can join the conversation; our stories can be read online for free in English and Spanish. Although our funding allows hard copies to be distributed in Tennessee where our grant is based, they have also been used by project officers in Washington, DC, and have even landed in comic book stores. Requests for Spark comics came in from nearly 20 different states as well as the Bahamas.

Finally, it is important to continue these discussions as the big topics continue to unfold. Our latest story, Spark Unmasked, tackles issues of identity among LGBTQ+ youth.

We have met many young people whose mental health is suffering 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 pique your interest and join the conversation!

Amanda McGeshick is the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program Manager at Centerstone, a nonprofit health system specializing in mental health and addiction services.

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