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Vanguard: Destigmatizing Mental Health From Childhood

Once upon a time, the Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services and United Way of Connecticut/211 set off on a quest to aid in the mental health crisis, starting from a young age. They teamed up with our friends over at Vanguard to create a children’s book aimed at suicide prevention, destigmatizing mental health issues, and teaching kids to care for their mental well-being. Our team got in touch with Melanie Meile, a Senior Account Representative of Marketing Services at Vanguard, who gave us the inside scoop!


Looking for a child-friendly face, the team picked Gizmo, a therapy dog that worked with schools in Connecticut, to serve as a mascot for the project.

And so began Gizmo's Pawesome Guide to Mental Health! The book used the data-driven, evidence-based Safety Plan (Stanley and Brown, 2012) as its framework and scaled the information down for younger children. Vanguard worked closely with the Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services to develop the language and break down the content into something easy for a young mind to comprehend. Gizmo’s leash holder, Jen Adams, shared some great photos that would eventually illustrate the book! 

From there, an educational curriculum was developed from the material in the book, and Vanguard was asked to create an MP3 video version of the book that teachers could show in the classroom. “We also developed the teacher's training

guide using the same video,” Meile says, “with overlays containing instructions for each page and suggested activities. To accompany the video, Vanguard created a kit of materials housed in a doghouse-shaped box, with Gizmo peeking through the door. The doghouse was created with a flat top for easy packing/shipping. Vanguard also made a sell sheet describing the book and the kit for anyone seeking additional information.” Custom Gizmo carton packing tape was used to seal each shipment to build excitement for the program before the box was even opened. 

This box was full of goodies to make mental health education fun, including a mental health checklist, a self-care BINGO game, copies of the book for both the child and the classroom, a plush toy of Gizmo, and buttons and door decals for students to give to trusted adults to create visible and accessible safe spaces for their peers. Caregivers also received a “Companion Brochure” with teaching guidelines and additional resources.

The program was a hit! Students of all ages were responding to the program and even putting Gizmo’s message to use in real-life situations. One child’s classroom puts Gizmo to use daily as the class stuffed animal. “I had a difficult day,” they reported, “and Gizmo sat on my desk all day and helped me remember to use my coping strategies.” Another student keeps Gizmo close at home, saying “I put my Gizmo guide to mental health book in my pillowcase and I read it when I am sad or worried.” 

Gizmo is great for parents, too! Vanguard created an adult mental health checklist and a poster of self-help tips to encourage parents to take care of their mental health as well as their child’s. They also developed a brochure, inserted into each take-home book, that guides parents through each page of the book and explains how to help their children understand and manage their mental health. Parents and guardians have raved about the program since the beginning; one happy parent left this review:

“I am so happy to see this being addressed with our kids. We don’t have health class for our kids until middle school, but to tell you the truth, I think this is better than any health class that I ever took.”

Still, the team wanted to broaden Gizmo’s reach! “The next phase had us create two different Gizmo ’bundles’ to help school counselors open dialog with middle and high school students,” Meile says. These bundles consisted of a drawstring backpack with Gizmo's pawprint, a journal, a Gizmo-branded pawprint water bottle, and a different mental health plan geared toward each age group. Each bundle also came with either a Gizmo plush for middle school students or a velour dog stress toy for high school students. Introducing older children and teens to Gizmo was a huge success; students and teachers alike loved it! “Of the many pilot curriculums we have been exposed to,” one teacher said, “Gizmo’s is one we are very excited to bring into the school on a permanent basis.”

The most recent project the Gizmo team took on was a preschool activity book designed for early childhood educators and families to introduce children ages 3-5 to mental health concepts. Gizmo’s Pawesome Guide to Mental Health: Early Childhood Introduction Activity Book is full of interactive readings, educational activities, and fun coloring pages featuring Gizmo and his therapy dog pals!

Overall, Vanguard has received overwhelmingly positive feedback about Gizmo! Meile says, “Hearing the stories shared about how the program has encouraged children to ask for help and teachers to come forward and express possible concerns has been so rewarding. A program like this shows what a strong impact we can make in the world.”

“This project started more than six years ago and continues to grow! Materials have been distributed throughout the US, Canada, and Australia,” Meile continues. “We have printed more than 40,000 books, and 300 classrooms have been trained in the Gizmo curriculum, reaching approximately 2,500 children! The middle and high school ’bundles’ flew off the warehouse shelves, with school counselors saying they had been very helpful in reaching students. The project encompasses design, video production, illustration, graphics, translation, printing, promotional products, warehousing and distribution. Vanguard's relationship with the client has also grown stronger as we are now seen as a valued partner and, best of all, one who helps them implement their programs and achieve their goals! In all, it has been a very successful program.”

Among the plethora of benefits it provides, early mental health education promotes healthier cognitive development, establishes good habits, and constructs a framework for long-term emotional wellness. Educating our youth is changing lives and social constructs with every step we take toward destigmatizing mental health. Thanks to the combined efforts of Vanguard, United Way of Connecticut/211, and the Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, thousands of children have been provided with these vital resources! 

Visit to learn more. Funding was provided by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration via the State Youth Suicide Prevention Cooperative Agreement Grant (SM 062916), and the Children’s Mental Health Block Grant.



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