Mental health is a topic that four Faribault High School students wanted to address in Rice County. None of them anticipated that joining the group MINDS (Moving In New DirectionS) would give them the opportunity to share their message on a national level.
Abigale Bongers, Jordyn Tesch, Bennett Wolff and Anna Behning, were invited to participate in an Adolescent and Young Adult Behavioral Health CoIIN (Collaborative Improvement and Innovation Network) project titled “Addressing Adolescent and Young Adult Depression in Primary Care.” The goal of the CoIIN project is to improve depression/mental health screenings and followups for adolescents and young adults, and to involve youth in the process by giving them a platform.
So far, Bongers and Tesch participated in two national-level conference calls to share a presentation on their cause. Part of the conversation for the first call, for the Association of Maternal and Child Health Programs, can be viewed at bit.ly/30aHQ55. For the second conference call, Bongers, Tesch, Behning and Wolff presented their information to the University of Minnesota Institute in Adolescent Health.
The students were given this platform thanks to Lyndsey Reece, child and teen checkup coordinator for Rice County Public Health. The Minnesota Department of Health invited Reese to be part of the CoIIN project. Minnesota is one of five states chosen to participate, and Rice County is one of two counties chosen in the state.
Reece sought out MINDS students to represent the youth voice on the conference calls. She and Shane Roessler, school counselor at the Faribault Area Learning Center, both supervise this group to engage students in discussions about mental health. Ten students across FHS, Faribault Discovery School and the ALC participate in the group, which has the goals of normalizing the topic of mental health, educating youth in self-advocacy and helping the community understand how to best support youth.
“In this group we talk about how mental health is just as important as physical health, just not as visible,” said Bongers.
Bongers joined MINDS following a friend’s recommendation.
“I just want to be heard and make a difference.” Bongers then passed the word on to Tesch, who joined because she likes to talk about mental health.
During their conference calls, Bongers and Tesch shared feedback from a student survey, suggestions for the year ahead and ideas moving forward.
Before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, MINDS began developing a survey to gather input from area students on their stressors, worries and coping skills. Students later added “pre-COVID-19” questions to the survey as well as questions that applied to participants’ mental states during the pandemic.
In response to one of the questions, which read, “How have things changed since COVID?” some of the answers from FHS and ALC students included, “Nothing has changed,” “School is better” and “Not much has changed other than not going to school and hanging out with friends as much.”
Others were less upbeat, noting, “Things changed a ton and a lot of people are getting depressed,” “Everything being cancelled really upset me and I am still hit with waves of sadness about that,” “I get super anxious about everything” and “Life isn’t the same anymore.”
On low days, survey participants reported thinking about how much they miss friends and family, “how scary and cruel the world is,” questions about life and death and their uncertain futures. Some worried about not being liked, not being “good enough” and disappointing people.
Through the survey, MINDS students found that school counselors and teachers at FHS and the ALC are the most likely people students turn to for help. Thirty-six out of 65 FHS participants and 19 out of 21 ALC participants said they would turn to a teacher while 32 FHS students and 17 ALC students said they would talk to a school counselor.
Survey participants also listed their theories about what stops the conversation about mental health from moving forward. Students listed judgment from others, fear of appearing weak, rejection and the realness of acknowledging a problem as reasons youth may stay silent on the issue.
MINDS students learned from the survey that some youth lack the necessary resources to appropriately cope with negative feelings. While some students said they go outside, talk to a trusted friend or listen to music, others admitted they don’t do anything, ignore their feelings or self-destruct.
Tesch said while it’s scary to know that youth deal with these difficult emotions, the survey showed how important it is to address their needs. She recognizes that students may keep their feelings inside because they don’t want to be treated differently.
For the upcoming school year, the group wants to promote building trust between new teachers and/or counselors and their students, using software for regular student well-being check-ins, allowing students to turn off their webcams during distance learning if they feel uncomfortable showing their teachers and peers where they live, and connecting students to relevant mental health resources.
MINDS has also plotted ways to prioritize the mental well-being of students if distance learning continues. Some of their ideas include facilitating more calls between students, so they can see their peers outside the online classroom setting, and “Wellness Wednesday,” which would give students the chance to focus on themselves mid-week.
Bongers said teachers could either lighten the homework load or refrain from presenting new material on Wednesdays to prevent students from growing overwhelmed.
For middle school students specifically, MINDS members want to host a wellness panel in which eighth-graders learn from ninth-graders about how they deal with high school stressors. Bongers said many eighth-graders deal with anxiety as they approach the end of their middle school careers, so the panel could ease some of their worries.
Bongers and Tesch both said they’ve dealt with their own share of hardships during the pandemic, particularly missed opportunities, reduced social outings and the uncertainty of what the 2020-21 school year will look like. Being involved in MINDS is one thing that gives them a sense of normalcy and an outlet for sharing their perspectives.
“Everybody’s voice needs to be heard at some point,” said Tesch.