By Megan Sullivan
As the SHINE Initiative promotes its mission to “recognize mental illness in children and young adults as a mainstream health issue” a simple yet effective strategy has been to do so through basic conversations. Engaging in dialogue with adolescents in schools and other youth serving organizations has been key to educating young people about various aspects of mental health.
At the end of these presentations we are always met with questions. We’re also frequently approached by brave teens who self-disclose about their illness, or that of a loved one, in candid and courageous detail. These and other young people then often ask what they can do to promote greater awareness and better understanding and acceptance of mental illness. Their desire to help ranges from sharing their stories of success, to how they can influence their peers, school and community to be more accepting.
Seizing upon this desire to be agents for change, in the fall of 2015 the SHINE Initiative created and piloted its first Student Wellness Advisory Teams, now known as “SWAT.”
With backing from school administrators, SWAT quickly took flight and began tackling mental health and wellness. Once a month (or more) the students gathered to talk about relevant mental wellness themes, how they could address it given their resources, and to begin planning school-wide events.
At Leominster High School students said stress was particularly present during their midterm exams. In response the SWAT assembled and distributed “Stress-Less Kits” to all 2,000 classmates. The kit featured a guided meditation and guide to “quick tips to improve your mental health.”
Students at Bancroft School in Worcester wanted to promote fun and healthy ways to cope with stress while refreshing their mind and body. The result was a school-wide “Refresh Day.” This hour-long event featured stations that included calming jars, coloring, aromatherapy, and popping bubble wrap. It was amazing to observe the tenacity and enthusiasm demonstrated by these students, event after event.
As the SHINE Initiative’s Youth Outreach Coordinator and Advisor to SWAT, I can attest to the zeal displayed by every student to end the stigma and educate their peers. I watched as these teams created safe spaces where no one was judged for openly talking about what their struggles may be. No one felt alone or different, everyone was accepted. It was beautiful. The hope I felt from those moments was palpable.
Some things I learned are that the conversation about mental illness is evolving more rapidly among young people than I expected. There is greater acceptance and hope for those who have a mental health need, and young people are so willing to step up and speak out. Simply stated, they are making a huge impact.
During every meeting I learned something new. Sometimes it was a story of someone’s diagnosis and at other times it was sharing an interesting article someone had read. Every meeting confirmed that they are eager to advocate for themselves and their peers.
With a little bit of support and mentoring, the SHINE Initiative has already seen a glimpse of what youth can do. One amazing example has been a comprehensive mental health curriculum, compiled by former and current students from Leominster High School whose group is called “LEAD” the acronym meaning “Let’s Empower, Advocate, Do.” Their immense effort is on its way to becoming a complement to the school’s health curriculum. It also has the potential of spurring a similar opportunity for students in high schools across the Commonwealth.
During this next school year the SHINE Initiative anticipates creating and welcoming several more Student Wellness Advisory Teams that will join those in place at Leominster High School, Monty Tech, Fitchburg High School and Bancroft School.
I look forward to guiding and empowering them, and to fostering their ideas. We hope to form a panel of student speakers who will be available and at the ready to share their stories of why this mission is important to them. The SHINE Initiative also proposes to feature SWAT members as bloggers so they can weigh in on various topics that are trending in the field of mental health.
And I cannot wait for the spring of 2017 when all SWATs will convene to share their successes during our second student mental wellness summit.
Mental health and wellness have at last emerged as a topic of mainstream conversation and it is so gratifying and inspiring that young people are so willing and proud to join that conversation.
(Megan Sullivan has served as the SHINE Initiative’s Youth Outreach Coordinator since January 2015. Megan is a graduate of Worcester State University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology. She recently obtained certification as a Youth Mental Health First Aid instructor.)