Around her 16th birthday, a friend told Rhea Karumuru how much she had helped him while they were at Flower Mound’s Downing Middle School. He credited his happiness then to her being such a good friend.
“I was taken aback,” she said. “I just wanted to listen and only gave him friendly advice when he asked. I wasn’t aware that he was personally dealing with more than he shared originally and was receiving professional help. So, I was pleasantly surprised to learn about the true impact I had on him, even with the support he had already been receiving.”
By being what she wanted to be – a good friend with a listening ear – sparked an idea for the now 18-year-old Marcus High School senior.
“If I could help one person, without even realizing by listening to them as a friend, I wondered how many others I may be able to help on a broader scale,” she said.
So two months before the COVID-19 pandemic started, she launched Rel8, a non-profit peer support group. Her vision was to offer a place for teens like her to share their issues far enough in advance that they don’t lead to mental health problems. Today, aided by Rel8 Vice President and fellow senior Nicole Shokry, the club has 20-30 students attending sessions most Tuesdays after school.
“Our mission is to eliminate taboo and prejudice from early-stage mental health concerns among young adults by creating a forum for them to have safe, non-judgmental conversations with support from peers and experts,” Karumuru said.
Karumuru built the organization’s website (rel8now.org) herself from scratch. She engaged student counselor Triana Burroughs as the club’s advisor and volunteer experts including Erika Dietz (college counseling), Michelle Schwolert (family and substance abuse), Manu Shahi (education) and Rupali Gautam (mental health and college planning). They speak to the students monthly about their specialties.
“My inspiration came from seeing my peers struggling with many things in their daily lives that can turn into mental health issues. I found the best way to help my friends, or any other young adult for that matter, is through active listening and offering non-judgmental support,” Karumuru said. “People don’t realize by offering a listening ear you can help so much.”
Karumuru said the primary areas of stress the group discuss are family, relationships, school and social media.
“Teens increasingly feel a lack of control with issues on the family front, making problems within the household a common cause of stress,” she said. “Therefore, addressing pressure that family matters place on teens can not only help students improve their emotional agility, it can teach them how to be in control of situations.”
School worries include grades, class standing, testing, etc. And, since the pandemic, dealing with virtual learning and its nuances in how students best learn and how teachers have been grading.
“The impact of social media has definitely been felt but not as the sole driving factor,” she said. “Technology is changing for the better to where social media doesn’t have as much of an impact as it once did.
“These aren’t issues that just teenagers face. Everyone faces issues where stress can lead to much more harmful problems like physical and mental health conditions.”
She noted that people with underlying issues have additional challenges.
“The whole idea is preventative care is crucial, no matter what the subject is,” she said. “If you catch the stressor early and diminish it, we can keep mental issues from becoming bigger.”
Karumuru’s efforts are fully supported by her father Ravi and mom Jyoti, who moved to the United States from India in the late 1990s. She also has an older sister Komal. In addition to her work on Rel8, Karumuru is vice president of the Marcus Speech and Debate program and a member of the school’s tennis team.
As she increases her group’s awareness at Marcus, Karumuru hopes to ultimately expand to other high schools in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and later to universities and statewide and nationwide organizations.
“My goal is to get as many people involved in this mission as possible,” she said. “Not only do I have plans to carry this on into college, my current plan is make this go digital. Of course there’s tremendous impact when you do this one-on-one, but by digitalizing this valuable support, we can make it accessible to young adults across the entire country.”
Her dream is to attend the University of California-Berkeley and major in computer science with a minor in behavioral sciences.
“The way people interact and how they handle their daily stressors in life is very interesting to me,” she said. “At the same time, I have a strong passion for technology which goes along with my goal to digitize everything. I want to harness the power of technology (artificial intelligence, machine learning etc.) to help solve these mental health concerns people deal with on a daily basis.”