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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

When the biggest student mental health advocates are the students



Camryn Baron, left, who founded the Yellow Tulip Team at Sacopee Valley High School in Hiram, Maine, where she is a junior, with the help of Elizabeth Sanborn, right, her faculty adviser, at the school on Jan. 29, 2024. With the number of adolescents struggling with mental health rising, student-led clubs have come to provide support amid a dearth of resources. (John Tully/The New York Times)

By Jennifer Miller


In October 2023, to commemorate Mental Health Awareness Week, a group of students at Sacopee Valley High School in Hiram, Maine, created the annual Hope Board. Shaped like an enormous tulip and displayed in the lobby, the board was covered with anonymous teenage aspirations. Some students hoped to pass driver’s education or have a successful playoff season. Others expressed more complicated desires. “To be more happy than angry,” wrote one student. Another wrote, “I hope people are kinder and more mature.”


Camryn Baron, 17, created the board as a founder of Sacopee’s Yellow Tulip Team, a student group devoted to mental health. “It’s an outlet for some kids to be able to outwardly express and vocalize something that’s bothering them,” she said.


Baron has struggled with an eating disorder, anxiety and depression; she is bisexual and has not always felt supported. “The things that a lot of us dismiss or struggle with here — to be able to share them with other people is validating,” she said.


Sacopee’s Yellow Tulip Team is one of roughly 150 such clubs supported by the Yellow Tulip Project, a mental health education and advocacy nonprofit. Co-founded in 2016 by Julia Hansen, a high schooler in Maine who had lost her two best friends to suicide, the nonprofit works to destigmatize mental illness and help students prioritize their emotional well-being.


At Sacopee Valley, the club plays upbeat music to welcome students each Monday and shares mental health information through morning announcements. Each fall, it plants a Hope Garden — 500 tulip bulbs this year — and will celebrate the flowers’ resilience in the spring with a youth wellness day of workshops and activities. At the group’s regular meetings, students might discuss stress-reduction strategies, as well as the homophobia, socioeconomic inequality and various stigma that many teenagers experience in their conservative-leaning, rural community.


In recent years, nonprofits that support school-based mental health clubs have found their programs in demand. The increase is the result of two phenomena: the rising number of adolescents struggling with mental health and the dearth of resources to help them. As schools search for solutions, often it’s the students who are leading the effort.


“When we think about mental health, it’s not just about crisis intervention,” said Lisa Padilla, senior behavioral and social scientist at the RAND Corp., who has studied mental health clubs. “The peer-based organizations are creating an environment in the school that says, ‘We value your well-being, and we know that’s part of who you are as a whole person.’ That message goes a long way to make students feel safe and empowered to speak up about their own needs.”


Teenagers’ mental health has worsened since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2021, 44% of high school students said they “persistently felt sad or hopeless,” up from 36.7% in 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The percentage of students who made a suicide plan or died by suicide also rose, especially among LGBTQ teenagers. According to a 2022 survey from the Institute of Education Sciences, 69% of public schools reported an increase in students seeking mental health services that year, but 43% of schools “moderately agreed” that they could “effectively provide mental health service to all students in need.” Only 13% “strongly agreed.”


In 2022, the White House pledged to invest $1 billion in school-based mental health programs over the next five years and promised to double the number of school counselors and social workers. Researchers say that trusted adults are crucial to helping struggling students.


Student-led efforts can play a vital role, too, said Peter Wyman, co-director of the Center for Study and Prevention of Suicide at the University of Rochester Medical Center. Peer leaders can be “significant influencers,” he said, in helping friends to avoid risk-taking behaviors, such as vaping or drugs, and to embrace coping behaviors, such as seeking counseling. The closer a teen is to the peer leader delivering a prevention message or demonstrating a healthy coping behavior, the bigger the impact, Wyman said.


Niku Sedarat, a high school senior from San Jose, California, and founder of the mental health organization Unité, said that teenagers were most receptive to “socially and culturally competent” messages delivered by their peers. Sedarat has recruited 150 student volunteers from across the country. They come from various backgrounds and are tasked with disseminating mental health resources at their schools. “When students feel their identity is being heard and matched, it’s more feasible for them to take the step to get support,” Sedarat said.


Some evidence suggests that the presence of a mental health club can benefit school culture. Padilla led a study of mental health clubs affiliated with the nonprofit Active Minds, another organization focused on destigmatizing mental illness. She found that students who were familiar with the club — even if they were not highly engaged in it — reported reduced stigma about mental illness. Those directly engaged were more knowledgeable about mental health resources on their campuses and were more likely to provide emotional support and connect friends to services.


Padilla emphasized that school-based mental health clubs should draw from an evidence-informed or an evidence-based curriculum. “It can’t just be students doing it by themselves,” she said.


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