May is mental health month, and the kids are talking about it. One evening in April, a hodgepodge of people with connections to teens, including teens themselves, participated in a mental health forum. As a reporter and lay person, I had the opportunity to participate, and want to share a couple of highlights that I took away from the experience.
Andy Zanca Youth Empowerment Program (AZYEP) interns and staff partnered with the Aspen Hope Center to organize the forum. About two dozen people were present, sitting around a square set of tables, everyone facing each other.
The conversation will be aired in its entirety on KDNK Community Access Radio on Thursday, May 4 at 7pm.
High school students, teachers, counselors, parents and mentors were present, filling every seat. A microphone was shared between four or five people on each side of the square, and acted as a sort of talking stick.
Two hours flew by, the first 30 minutes being dominated by the youth, who were all eager to discuss the topic. A respectful exchange of ideas and potential solutions from the varying perspectives ensued.
“This was brought together by the students and for the students,” said Jason Hodges, vice president of AZYEP, “and we’re all here sitting in this room tonight. I think that’s really amazing. You’re not waiting for the adults in your lives to make a difference, you’re taking an active role.”
Hodges’ praise was mimicked throughout the evening, this journalist often being at a loss of words, and more than once stating to the youth, “You’re freaking amazing.”
After introductions, the first question posed to the group regarded the conditions of the mental health space among teens today. Notably, a few speakers delved right into mental health being grounded in one’s early-childhood development.
“I believe a lot of mental health issues begin at a very young age, but since kids are pretty young in elementary school it’s not really talked about,” began Jocelyn Juanlucas, a student at Bridges High School. “I felt like that when I was younger. My father was at risk of being deported and I don’t remember being asked once how I felt about that.” She continued, “A lot of people think that kids don’t notice or that they’re not affected, but they pick up on things very quickly.”
Having taught primary school for 15 years, Amanda Petersen echoed Juanlucas. “When I was teaching first-graders, I began to see that teaching social-emotional wellbeing and giving young kids tools to support themselves — to give them language around feelings and tools to help them regulate — was becoming non-negotiable,” she stated.
As a child grows into their teenage years, they experience more independence and the world opens up to them in many positive ways. However, larger problems inevitably present themselves. Not having learned the tools that Petersen pointed out can make navigating those later obstacles much more difficult.
What role should schools play?
Zenobia Todd, an AZYEP intern, posed the next question about what role schools currently play in mental health, and was genuinely interested in what parameters people thought might be appropriate.
Jamie Andel, a Bridges student, said that finding a teacher he’s comfortable with to express himself has worked for him. At the same time, students showed understanding that teachers already have maxed schedules and modest compensation. This led to the notion that there’s a systemic problem.
“As much as it’s something that I wish wasn’t part of this discussion, I think that teacher wages have to be thought about,” said Blake Petersen, an AZYEP intern. “I think it’s unfair, in our current system, to expect that they should know how to deal with a kid who is struggling,” noting that teachers don’t typically have the training and resources to do so.
“I appreciate that immensely,” replied Garrett Peters, a social studies teacher at Glenwood Springs Highs School. “I think that we do need to bear in mind that teachers do care about young people,” he added.
“The more hats that are put on teachers without the monetary aspect, or the training, the more challenging this becomes,” he continued. “And honestly, the more and more quality educators we’re going to see fleeing the profession; which is a threat to young people as well.”
The third question addressed communication between parents and their kids. Again, it was emphasized that developing open communication at a young age is important. Then, in their teen years, maintaining that despite the subject matter becoming less comfortable and often more dire.
AZYEP intern Parker Wilson empathetically noted that parents need to let their children know if they are struggling too, because “everyone has this shared experience.”
“Our parents and teachers are superheroes but who is there to save the hero?” Andel asked. He wondered if schools could offer mental health resources to parents and teachers. “They provide free lunches, they should be providing that too, because we’re a community, not separate.”
The students were encouraged by the adults to keep having this conversation and remember that they can affect change. A number also stated that school administrators should be invited to the next forum.
This reporter implores everyone to listen to the KDNK broadcast on May 4. There was an incredible amount covered by these youth and their mentors, and this write-up only scratches the surface. Please tune in.
“I’m proud of everyone who spoke today, because it’s very brave to talk about mental health … the whole reason we are here,” stated Wilson.