Micah Palacios, 18, of San Antonio is no stranger to grappling with her feelings and striving to maintain a positive mental attitude.
At only 9, she began to slowly but consistently lose more and more of her hair. She didn’t know why, but it was coming out in clumps.
“My mother first noticed I had a bald spot,” she explained. “Then my hair just kept falling out a little at a time. By the time I was 10, I had lost about 75% of it.”
Her doctor diagnosed her with alopecia areata, an auto-immune disease that attacks the follicles and causes hair to fall out, usually in patches.
“But I didn’t just lose my hair, I lost my self-confidence and became depressed,” she said. “This was the time in my life I was supposed to be going out and trying new hairstyles, but I didn’t have enough hair. I was self-conscious and didn’t want people to see me.”
Fortunately, she said, her 4-H friends helped her rediscover her confidence.
Program support and coping skills
“I’ve been in Texas 4-H for 11 years now, and because I’m home-schooled 4-H has been my outlet for a lot of social and educational activity,” Palacios said. “And while people in public would stare at me when I lost my hair, my 4-H friends never did and never pointed it out. They let me know there was more to me than my hair and, while I didn’t realize it at the time, 4-H was also providing me with coping skills.”
She said those coping skills included the opportunity for her to learn about nutrition and develop her own sense of style.
“I learned how a balanced diet can improve your health and give you more energy,” Palacios said. “And the lessons I learned in the 4-H program about style and design helped me cope with my situation by embellishing hats and finding scarves and bandanas to cover my hair. They helped me feel better about myself.”
She said due to the personal difficulty she had experienced as well as the support shown by both her 4-H peers and adult mentors within the program, she wanted to share her perspective on mental health with other young people.
“Although my hair grew back when I was 13 or 14, I’ll never forget the emotional impact that had on my life and the realization that other young people needed to understand the effect their own thoughts and emotions can have on their mental health.”
Developing the ‘Navigating Your Thoughts’ project
Natalie Cervantes, AgriLife Extension 4-H and youth development agent for Bexar County, said Palacios came to her with an idea on engaging youth on the topic of mental health after attending the National 4-H Council’s True Leaders in Equity Institute last year in Washington, D.C.
“She had read the ‘Your Thoughts Matter: Navigating Mental Health’ curriculum that’s available to 4-H members to help them understand mental health issues and saw how she could adapt that to increase mental health awareness among other young people,” Cervantes said. “We looked at how to make that into a project and developed a plan on how to put her ideas into a new curriculum for young people.”
Palacios, who had also taken National Alliance on Mental Illness training with her parents, then launched the curriculum to help promote youth-adult communication about mental health, help young people identify feelings of anxiety and depression, show how many people are affected by mental illness and learn how altering one’s thinking can lead to a healthier mental outlook.
“It was Micah’s work toward expanding mental health awareness and education among young people that earned her the 4-H Youth in Action Pillar Award in Healthy Living for 2020,” Cervantes said.
Palacios noted it was also her experience with someone close to her being affected by mental illness that inspired her to pursue this project and find a way to help young people navigate their thoughts and feelings.
4-H Youth in Action awards
The 4‑H Youth in Action Program recognizes four confident young leaders with diverse backgrounds and unique perspectives in the organization’s core pillar areas of agriculture, civic engagement, healthy living and STEM, Cervantes explained. The 4-H Youth in Action Pillar Awards began in 2010 to recognize 4-H’ers who have overcome challenges and used the knowledge they gained in 4-H to create a lasting impact in their community.
Palacios was officially recognized as the 2020 4-H Youth in Action Pillar Winner in the healthy living category on March 25 during the 11th Annual 4-H Legacy Awards. This year the awards were live-streamed on the National 4-H Facebook site instead of being held in Washington, D.C. as a result of travel and social distancing restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The awards were introduced by celebrity chef Carla Hall of Top Chef and The Chew, herself a former 4-H member from Tennessee.
Palacios, her parents and five siblings gathered at home to watch the virtual awards program.
“It was great being able to share the experience with my family,” Palacios said. “Originally the program was going to be held in Washington D.C., and only my parents were going with me. This way my entire family got to be a part of it.”
As part of her award recognition, Palacios will serve as an advocate and spokesperson for the 4-H Healthy Living Program. She also received an initial scholarship for being one of the four finalists, then received an additional scholarship when organizers decided to split funds between the four finalists in lieu of awarding them to one overall national Youth in Action winner.
“I want to have a positive influence on young people and others dealing with mental health issues and show them they don’t have to be afraid to admit they are having problems and should seek help,” Palacios said.
As part of her responsibilities as a Healthy Living ambassador, Palacios will speak at schools and other public venues. Partnering with AgriLife Extension, she has already introduced the project to Bexar County 4-H clubs and soon will begin working with 4-H programs on military bases in San Antonio with the aim of reducing the stigma of mental illness among youth in military families.
“I want to help make it easier for young people talking about how they feel and show them why we need good mental health as much as we need good physical health,” she said. “I also want them to understand how food and nutrition can make a difference in our mental health and how we feel and think.”
Palacios said she is looking forward to being an ambassador for living a healthy lifestyle and promoting good mental health. She plans to use her scholarship money toward a degree in public health or family and consumer science.