Find Orlando Family Magazine on Facebook! Follow Orlando Family Magazine on Twitter!

Lifeguards on Duty

There has perhaps never been a time with a greater focus on mental health and the direct need to address anxiety, depression and other issues that continuously haunt individuals. One local organization understands this mission wholeheartedly and has established itself as a strong support system and leading provider for folks all across Central Florida who may be struggling.

The Mental Health Association of Central Florida (MHACF), whose roots date back to 1946, strives to promote mental wellness by providing access to services, support and information to help community members wrestling with various mental health conditions. One of the focal points of the great work this organization does revolves around engaging younger folks through various outreach programs in hopes of identifying issues sooner and achieving better outcomes.

And while the pandemic has certainly increased cases of mental health issues for folks of all ages, the fact is experts have noticed that the younger generation has also been dealing with this problem for quite some time, making it evident that it is not something only adults are forced to contend with.

“The plight of teens and young adults suffering from a mental health crisis was something being closely examined before the pandemic,” says Marni Stahlman, president and CEO of MHACF. “What COVID did was put a spotlight on the fact that we are now able to see these individual kids and young adults really grapple with some serious anxiety and depression.”

Recent figures released by Mental Health America show that more than half the children within the ages of 11 to 17 who took part in a depression screening reported frequent suicidal thoughts on more than half or nearly every day of the previous two weeks. That number rose significantly higher for young people of color or those who identify as LGBTQIA+.

To help raise awareness on suicide prevention and better meet the needs of teens and young adults, the MHACF launched its You are a Lifeguard initiative in 2021. The campaign was created to specifically reach younger folks and has been doing so by utilizing social media platforms they frequent such as TikTok, YouTube, Facebook and Instagram with the overriding message that “lifeguards aren’t just for the pool, they’re all around us.”

By taking a pledge, one can become a lifeguard for a loved one or even themselves, explains Stahlman. “There’s nothing stopping you from trying to save your own life by reaching out and asking for assistance and telling somebody that you are not OK.”

The program offers training and resources to help these lifeguards spot the signs, symptoms and other risk factors, as well as advice on how to broach the difficult topic with the people they care about. 

“One of the things that has happened over time is that as individuals become more comfortable talking about mental health, suicide is still something that is considered taboo. The conversation is really hard to have,” says Stahlman. “But it’s also really simple, just by reaching out to somebody to say, ‘Hey, I noticed that you’re not OK. What can I do to help?’ 

“For parents, that’s the real important piece because when we hear stories of youths who have had a suicide completion, part of the tragedy of the story are the parents reporting back that they didn’t see the signs, they didn’t ask the questions, that they didn’t know [there was a problem].”

Stahlman adds that since the campaign’s launch, the feedback has been overwhelming, and establishing these strong connections is making a real difference in bringing issues to the surface since many never let on about their internal struggles.

“For a lot of these adolescents that we are talking about, they are hiding in plain sight. They are hiding in classrooms, in youth groups, etc. And that’s what we have to get over, we have to push past what looks to be obvious. We need to connect with these kids and the people who care about them and let them know that we are here to support them,” she says. 

Of course, that hurdle can be hard to overcome as many don’t feel comfortable sharing their issues with others or perhaps don’t have the access to the appropriate services. 

“For a lot of individuals, particularly with people of color and in the LGBTQ+ community, it’s difficult for them to find resources. So the MHACF, along with You are a Lifeguard, really spends a lot of time making sure that we have those resources available through virtual community support groups and other partners available through the platform,” Stahlman says.

All in all, it’s clear that the MHACF and You are a Lifeguard are vital to helping turn the tide of adolescent mental illness and suicide ideation. Stahlman stresses that it will take a large collaborative effort between the organization and the community, but she’s confident that determination will make a real difference.

“We are all keyed into this and we want to make sure that we are doing our best because we want to save these lives,” she says.

“We are fortunate to have the support of so many great organizations to bring these programs to life. Without the help of Central Florida Cares and our other generous partners, we would not be able to share You Are a Lifeguard with Orlando Family Magazine and the community.

To become a lifeguard, visit

Mental Health Association of Central Florida


(407) 898-0110