May is Mental Health Month but maintaining awareness of the suffering and grief caused by mental illness is a year-round job. Michael Bassirpour, CEO of Roseville, Mich.-based metal recycler GLR Advanced Recycling, knows deeply the pain mental illness can cause. In 2010, his brother, Glen, died after struggling for years with his illness. In 2013, his father, Ali, also succumbed to the disease.
“When we were going through it with my mom and my whole family … It was like, there’s nowhere to turn, there’s not enough resources,” Michael Bassirpour recalls. “It’s such a dysfunctional way to approach mental health.”
Bassirpour explains how he chanced upon a way to help encourage mental health at his recycling facility. “One day, I was at the [facility], literally watching cars getting crushed,” he says. “I kind of just put two and two together and a play on words for ‘Crushing the Stigma’ against illness, make it OK to talk to people about the issues that you have going on, and the idea was born.”
In April, GLR helped a suburban Detroit high school raise awareness that it’s OK to talk about stress and other problems that affect mental wellbeing. The company brought four white vehicles to Novi High School, where students could write their problems on them in permanent marker.
“People wrote [words like] depression, sexual assault, home violence, parents, or school [advanced placement] tests; then obviously, COVID,” graduating senior Anjani Malli Reddi says. “It was eye opening, because you don’t really see people, like, talking about a lot of these things; really, it’s more of stuff that you keep to yourself. But then having it being an anonymous thing, we could write anywhere, and anyone could see [it], that was really something that I think a lot of students liked.”
Students gathered April 26 in the school parking lot and watched as GLR workers using heavy equipment moved the cars to a compactor and crushed them. “I think this car crush really helped people be open about their struggles and see that it can be vocalized—and vocalizing it can sometimes help,” says Lina Iyer, an incoming senior. Guest speakers included Bassirpour and other community leaders. “It was a great, great learning experience,” says Nicole Carter, Novi High School principal. “It was an opportunity for our school community to come together.”
Carter—Michigan’s 2022 Principal of the Year—said her school’s Student Mental Health Committee hosted UMatter Week from April 25 to 29, centered around mental health resources, fun activities, and events. The school sets aside time Mondays and Fridays for Advisory, a program where an adult and a small group of students meet regularly for academic guidance and support. On Mondays, counselors and teens grapple with topics from stress management to organization to career planning.
The goal of Advisory is to make the 2,100-member student body feel less like an institution and more like a family. “We want to make sure that every student in our school is able to identify and have a strong relationship with at least one trusted adult,” Carter says.
At Novi High School, every classroom has a recycling bin. There is a Student Recycling Club. The car crush may have raised awareness of recycling even more. “I did hear people talking about, where were they getting the cars from? And what was going to happen to the cars?” Iyer says.
GLR provided a Crushing the Stigma program in late May at nearby Farmington High School. The company had a Crushing the Stigma event just before the start of COVID-19 in the U.S., as well as in October 2021, and Bassirpour plans to have more. “My part is to try to continue the conversation, to try to provide resources to people,” he says. He would like to take the program to schools nationwide.
GLR frequently provides workers with opportunities to talk about their mental health concerns. “I’m super-conscious and aware of it,” Bassirpour explains. “Everyone is extremely stressed because of COVID. Because of the dysfunctional world that we live in at this point, if you have any sort of anxiety or depression, it just gets exacerbated so much nowadays, so awareness and discussion are important.”
Whether pandemic-related or not, ISRI has resources you can use to start or continue discussions about mental health here.
All photos courtesy of Novi Community School District. Featured photo caption: Workers from ISRI member GLR Advanced Recycling load a car into a compactor April 29 at Novi High School as part of an event to rase awareness of mental health. Body photo 1 caption: “Anxiety” is one of many stressors Novi students wrote about on the cars used in the “Crushing the Stigma” event. Body photo 2 caption: A car covered with students’ graffiti after being compacted.