UD graduate storybook with friend pen to get kids talking about mental health
Over the past few years, we’ve seen conversations about mental health become much more common, both in private and in public.
It is with a view to breaking even more taboos for the youngest among us that two screenwriters have teamed up on a new project, just in time to Suicide Awareness Month.
The new storybook by Dennis Gillan and Stephen Pihl, two men who met at the University of Delaware, aims to encourage children to consider their own mental health and the well-being of those around them. After all, monitoring those around you, especially in times of pandemic, climate change and social upheaval, is an important way to take care of your community.
According to the authors, simply asking a friend or family member how they are — and really listening when they respond — goes a long way. In fact, they say, even something as simple as sharing a compliment can change someone’s day — or even save their life.
At least that’s what happened for Pihl, a former UD player.
“Sophomore year I was just like, I don’t want to be here anymore,” he recalled. “To put it bluntly, I didn’t want to. I just didn’t want to be here. I didn’t want to be bullied anymore. I didn’t want to feel sad anymore. So I was like, ‘OK, today It’s the day. I’m leaving for good. I had a plan and everything.”
Thank goodness something happened that changed that plan — and the course of his life, he said.
“It was like the penultimate period, before the bell, and a child came to me,” he recalls. “I just got new shoes like this week. And a kid that I didn’t really like – wasn’t like, super good friends or anything, came up to me and said, ‘ ‘Hey, I like your shoes.'”
Yes, his shoes.
This true story inspired the title of the recently released children’s book, “Nice Shoes!: A Little Compliment Can Go a Long Way.”
“That little compliment changed my day,” Pihl said. “I’m still here. So it definitely had a big impact on me.”
Pihl then graduated from the University of Delaware in 2022 and is back in his home state of Massachusetts working in the cognitive neuroscience labs at Boston Children’s Hospital. He plans to continue his studies in developmental neurophysiology in an MD/Ph.D. program, he said.
The storybook “Nice Shoes!” follows Derek, a young boy who has a tough day where everything seems to go wrong. He wakes up late, barely gets to the bus, forgets his sports clothes. He doesn’t do well on a math quiz.
Derek begins to wonder if every day will be as bad as this one.
Just as Derek is leaving school, the school’s most popular kid stops by to tell him he likes his shoes. Suddenly, nothing seems as bad as before.
It might sound simple enough, but Pihl said he couldn’t have created the book without co-author and friend Dennis Gillan.
Gillan, executive director of the Half a Sorrow Foundationhas dedicated his life to speaking out on mental health issues, including suicide prevention.
“We met at a Friends4Friends event [at UD] called Fall Fest, where Dennis was the keynote speaker and I was one of three students who were asked to talk about their mental health issues,” Pihl recalled. “After hearing my story he wanted to keep in touch because he said he couldn’t get it out of his head. Then after a few years he came up with the idea of writing a book for kids and here we are!” Pihl said.
“I always thought Stephen’s story was unique,” Gillan explained. “…Finally, I said, ‘We have to do something with this.’ And then at that time, I had a foundation. And we had money to self-publish.’
Gillan told his friend, “I’m thinking of a children’s book. … ‘I can’t do it without you. This is your story. Can we do it together?'”
Pihl’s answer? “Damn, yeah!”
Gillan is originally from Valley Cottage, New York, and now lives in Greenville, South Carolina. He traveled the country for years, speaking to schools about the importance of mental health and suicide prevention.
Sadly, his career path became apparent after losing two brothers, Mark and Matt, to suicide.
“My brothers, I wish they could have benefited from hearing this, or a kind word,” Gillan said. “They might still be there. So that’s my connection. And that’s…you know, I never wanted to be a public speaker for suicide prevention. But God had other plans for me. And I’m here, and I go around and I meet great people like Stephen.
Although the subject of mental health can be discussed much more openly than in the past, it is still not common to discuss a subject like suicide with young children.
It’s something Pihl and Gillan thought a lot about when creating this story.
“It’s really understanding that you can break this stuff down into very basic components; it doesn’t have to be a messy thought,” Pihl said. “But it’s just that if you’ve had a bad day, you have the right to talk about your mental health. And so we figured we could break down this complex and daunting topic of suicide. [and] of learned helplessness. And we can break it down into simple elements of feeling bad, of negative thoughts.
“We talked about sadness,” Gillan added. “And in the book, we’re very intentional about [it]. You know, we have children from 4 to 10 years old who may be reading this book. We never talked about suicide, [just] that the person is sad and thinks every day could be like this.”
The authors believe their storybook can serve as a starting point for all kinds of discussions about feelings, mental health issues and, yes, suicide.
Writing this book has helped Gillan and Pihl, who are already very open about their own mental health, become even more open and honest about it, they said.
“It allows us to articulate it better,” Pihl said. “And it allows us to reach different age groups, doesn’t it?… I think it has not only helped us in terms of thinking about the things that we have been through. But it also allows us to improve our communication , especially with vulnerable, vulnerable populations, such as children,” Pihl explained.
Beyond the idea that a compliment can redirect someone’s bad day, what do authors most want kids to take away from reading it?
“Kindness. Kindness always wins. Love always wins,” Gillan said.
Pihl uses a different analogy to drive the point home.
“I just think the simple, ‘It’s going to be okay.’ And that’s, it’s not easy to see the sun through blackout curtains, is it? That’s where friends come in. That’s when their friends They’re like, ‘Well, let’s move those curtains a bit.’ And that’s a little compliment, it’s moving the curtains, showing you the sun, showing you that everything’s going to be okay,” he said. Explain.
“Nice Shoes!” is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
More information about Dennis Gillan can be found at his website dennisgillan.com.
Suicide Prevention Resources
If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, you can call 988 or use some of these available resources: