As MCH professionals, we understand the importance of centering the needs and ideas of young people as we think through what it means to transform communities and systems to be more supportive of their mental health. As such, we are thrilled to feature two guest writers for this month’s blog post, Amber Woodside and Abby Melton, to demonstrate the important insights we can gain when we co-create our visions for communities that support young people in the ways that matter to them. Amber and Abby shared their thoughts in response to the following questions: In your communities, what has worked well for you or your peers to promote optimal mental health? What hasn’t worked well, and how would you change it?
Mental Health as a Journey, Not a Destination
By: Amber Woodside
One of the primary things I’ve noticed as a young person – both a community member and a partner with adults in the public health sector – is that so often we focus on mental health by focusing first on mental illness. This makes sense for public health, right? We always seek to “go upstream,” solve the problems before they’re problems, and make those ounces of prevention worth far more than pounds of cure. Yet, in my lived experience as a recipient and a developer of those programs and practices, hearing more about my mental health when it’s poor is almost depressing in and of itself. I’ve heard more in my community about anxiety and the increased depression from the pandemic and resources to improve the suffering I must be having and on and on and on, ad nauseam, than I have about strategies to make myself feel good before I feel “better.”
“Go to therapy! Take a walk! Exercise! Eat right! Here are all the groups and people and books that will help you do that. Stop that depression in its tracks! Here’s a breathing exercise! We believe in you to get better!” But, are you proud of me for taking joy in the outfit I spent twenty minutes putting together today? Was it good when I at least rolled my window down and smelled the rain on my way to work, even if I couldn’t find time to take a walk? Should it have felt like a success to take my first deep breath after ten minutes straight of crying in the bathroom? While we provide this plethora of resources for young people to start or continue their healing, we ought not forget to congratulate them while they’re still broken. Hold space in your town halls on mental health to talk about the tiny wins. Provide resources to educators and parents that teach them how to sit back and allow young people to feel what they feel when they feel it, even if it isn’t pretty. Structure programs and daily practices to take pauses – whether it’s to laugh, to cry, or simply to sit and be – so that we can remind ourselves and the young people we serve that it is absolutely okay that mental health is hard. It’s important to remember that the big picture is made up of small brushstrokes, and while not every one of them will be perfect, the end result will still be a masterpiece.
A Vision for Supportive Schools
By: Abigail Melton
Students spend the majority of their waking hours in school, so it follows that schools should provide a feeling of security and a sense of home. This evocation can be wildly different from the reality young people are faced with once they enter the schoolyard gates. I believe the key to achieving this peace at school for all students hinges on accessibility to and development of in-school mental health care resources. My ideal school environment that prioritizes youth mental health utilizes preventative care and outreach to the student body while also fostering relationships between students and on-campus counselors.
First, the ideal school environment would have a greater number of counselors available, including professionals that are specialized in certain areas like depression, substance abuse, and crisis counseling. The ratio of counselors-to-students would be closer to that of teachers-to-students. Students would be assigned a counselor that they would build a relationship with throughout the duration of their time at the school. There would be periodic required meetings to establish a line of communication between students and their counselors as well as an open door policy in which students can seek counsel whenever it’s needed. This personal connection would form trust between the two parties, with the ideal school also having absolute student-counselor confidentiality barring crisis situations.
To make students aware of the resources available to them as well as to spark conversations on subjects that might initially be hard to talk about, my ideal school environment would employ school-wide preventative care initiatives tackling issues facing the student population. Using resources either created by students or influenced by youth voices, the school’s team of mental health professionals would give assemblies or activities that begin dialogues on important subjects that could be continued in individual meetings between student and counselor.
The goal of this envisioned school is to enable students with the resources they need to tackle issues independently going forward as well as providing comfort for those who might have no other place to get it from. The school should be a haven in which students feel the freedom to confide in trustworthy adults, and for this to exist, students need to have reliable mental health care resources at their disposal.