Micah Palacios, 19, a longtime Texas 4-H member and San Antonio resident, was recently featured on People.com and in People magazine in the article “Meet People’s Girls Changing the World in 2020,” published in honor of International Day of the Girl.
In the article, Palacios was touted for her work helping destigmatize mental illness among youth. Along with the People article, Palacios has been mentioned in Teen Vogue and has appeared with actress and former 4-H member Sophia Bush, best known for her starring role in Chicago P.D., in a public service announcement.
Before this recognition, however, Palacios received national attention from the National 4-H organization when she saw chosen for a 4-H Youth in Action Pillar Award for her youth mental health education and awareness efforts.
“It’s really unexpected to get this amount of attention,” Palacios said. “But I’m grateful because it will help bring wider recognition of the mental health challenges so many young people are facing these days.
Palacios’ story and 4-H experience
At 9, Palacios slowly and consistently began to lose her hair due to alopecia areata, an auto-immune disease that attacks the follicles and causes hair to fall out, usually in patches. By the time she was 10, about 75% of her hair had fallen out.
But Palacios didn’t just lose her hair – she lost her self-confidence, becoming withdrawn and depressed.
“This was the time in my life I was supposed to be going out with friends and trying new hairstyles, but I didn’t have enough hair,” she said. “I was self-conscious and didn’t want people to see me.”
Fortunately, she said, her friends in Texas 4-H helped her rediscover her confidence, and the program helped her in other ways.
“I was in 4-H for 11 years, and while I didn’t fully realize it at the time, I was learning a lot of life skills and coping skills.”
Palacios said one of the things she learned was how balanced diet can improve health, increase energy and help toward a positive outlook. And her experiences in 4-H fashion program helped her adjust to her situation by showing her how she could embellish hats and select scarves and bandanas to use as hair covers.
“All those things helped me feel better about myself,” Palacios said.
Although Palacios’ hair grew back by 14, she said she would never forget the emotional impact the experience had on her life.
“I also came to realize I could use this experience as an example of why young people needed to understand the effect their own thoughts and emotions can have on their mental health,” she said. “That and another experience – this time with someone close to me being affected by mental illness — inspired me to reach out to other young people.”
Navigating how to reach other youth
Palacios’ inspiration then turned into a national youth outreach program through 4-H.
“Micah came to me with the idea of engaging youth on the topic of mental health after attending National 4-H Council’s True Leaders in Equity Institute last year in Washington, D.C.,” explained Natalie Cervantes, AgriLife Extension 4-H and youth development agent for Bexar County.
Cervantes said Palacios had read the “Your Thoughts Matter: Navigating Mental Health” curriculum that was available to 4-H members to help them understand mental health issues.
“Micah saw how she could adapt that curriculum to increase mental health awareness among other young people,” Cervantes said. “She had also taken National Alliance on Mental Illness training with her parents, and that gave her additional knowledge and insights.”
Palacios took her experiences and what she had learned to launch a new “Navigating Your Thoughts” curriculum for 4-H. The curriculum was designed 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 understand how changing one’s thinking can lead to a healthier mental outlook.
“In today’s challenging climate, helping young people understand mental health is critical,” said Jennifer Sirangelo, president and CEO, National 4-H Council, Washington, D.C.. “Micah’s drive and passion for building mental health awareness are indicative of 4-H’s long-standing commitment to empower young people with the tools and skills needed to build positive, healthy communities.”
The Youth in Action Pillar Award
Palacios’ work with youth mental health earned her the national 4-H Youth in Action Pillar Award in Healthy Living this year. 4-H Youth in Action Pillar Award winners were announced in March at the 11th annual 4-H Legacy Awards, which was held virtually due to COVID-19.
“I couldn’t go to Washington, D.C. to accept the award, but it was fun watching the awards program at home with my parents and five siblings,” 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 received a scholarship and was made an advocate and spokesperson for the 4-H Healthy Living Program. In that role, she has made presentations about mental health in public venues and collaborated with 4-H leadership to find additional ways to address youth mental health. She will continue those program responsibilities until the end of the year.
What’s next for Palacios
Palacios is now attending college and wants to pursue both a degree and a career related to public health or family and consumer science.
She has now aged out as a member of Texas 4-H but continues to be involved in program activities and stays in touch with her 4-H friends.
“Right now, I’m also coordinating a twice-a-month Zoom discussion on mental health during what I’m calling Mindfulness Mondays,” she said. “Each time I’ll address mental health issues and what people can do to help cope with them. Anyone who has access to Zoom can join in.”
Palacios said her next discussion will include a “calming affirmation jar” activity to help young people focus their thoughts in a more positive direction.
“This was an activity I learned and participated in when I met Sophia Bush, and now I have the opportunity to share it more widely with others,” she said.
Palacios said the social isolation and added challenges resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic and stress many young people are feeling as part of the digital world are indications of a widespread need to help them find ways to cope.
“I want to continue 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 hope whatever attention I’m getting for my efforts will help those dealing with mental health issues recognize they don’t have to be afraid to admit it – and to seek help.”