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Teen Mental Health "Shout Out" Brings Action Teams Together

On April 28, dozens of students, support staff and administrators from both Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools and Orange County Schools joined together in a virtual session to continue crucial conversations about increasing education and broad support for adolescent mental health. May is National Mental Health Awareness Month, and the Teen Mental Health “Shout Out” provided a valuable and well-received launch to upcoming activities and initiatives at the school, district and county levels.

The importance of the subject was underscored by the attendance of both school systems’ superintendents, Dr. Nyah Hamlett and Dr. Monique Felder, and their messages served as a welcome to the event.

Dr. Hamlett said, “The social and emotional well-being of our students is absolutely a top priority of mine. I was delighted to come to a school district and a community that shares my passion for this topic. The struggles our young people encounter are very real. Often, the way they react – the way they address or don’t address these issues – can have lifetime impacts. Nobody, neither child nor adult, should have to face mental health challenges alone. Likewise, no mental health provider should have to care for a community alone. They need our help…and we need each other."

The Teen Mental Health Shout Out was a follow-up event to the full-day summit, "Ending the Silence: Students United for Mental Health Awareness," held in October 2020. East Chapel Hill High School (ECHHS) Mental Health Specialist, Laura Dellicker, said, “We brought student leaders from two school districts to share their ideas, ask questions of one another, and brainstorm together. The partnership between Orange County Schools (OCS), Chapel Hill Carrboro City Schools, and community members is absolutely critical in ensuring that we are reaching teens across the entire county.”

Director of Family and Community Engagement, Roslyn Moffitt, said, “The amazing point of this initiative is the student focus and student leadership being exhibited. The staff from OCS and CHCCS are encouraging the students to be in the driver’s seat, which gives the students buy-in, ownership and the impetus via the action plans to really assist their fellow classmates in productive ways.”

After the superintendents’ greetings, Chapel Hill High School (CHHS) Mental Health Specialist, Erich Priest, led the group in an “SOS” exercise to Slow down, Orient yourself, and Self-check. Priest noted how important it is for adults and teens alike to understand what self-care strategies look like, and how important it is to model those behaviors for others.

As a starting point for discussions, one student from each high school’s mental health team reported on the progress of their action plans, which have been developed during the past year. Those plans include more abstract goals, like increasing students’ feelings of safety and well-being, and much more specific goals like improving social media visibility.

Carrboro High School (CHS) Mental Health Specialist, Ashley Freuler, said, “It's the student voices that will really bring to light the mental health awareness so desperately needed in our schools right now.”

CHHS student, Walker Williams is co-leader of that school’s action team with Rio Trevathan. “We shared a survey this past quarter with students to get a feeler on the attitude towards mental health at CHHS, their mental health concerns in correlation to what schoolwork they have and how they think teachers could improve their support.” 

"The Teen Mental Health Shoutout was a great follow-up to the Summit we had earlier this year!” said Williams. “We were able to share notes, compare our plans and connect with other schools' action teams. It was great to hear other students' concerns, make new friends and have open conversations about mental health. This Shout Out contributed in many ways to the goal of the CHHS Mental Health Action Team: reducing the stigma of mental health in our student population. We had a great time and encourage others to join in reducing the stigma!"

ECHHS student, Audrey Ashdown, shared her school’s update, with a spotlight on the upcoming Wildcat Wellness event on May 12. The event will feature a student panel, a faculty speaker and small group discussions in breakout rooms. Ashdown said it’s been especially challenging to spread the word about the team’s initiatives with so many students still in remote learning, but they are working with ECHHS student government to publicize upcoming activities, while reaching out to fellow students to collect a variety of perspectives on mental health advocacy. The team recently launched their new Instagram account.

Anna Horton serves as communications manager for the CHS team. “We've got a lot planned for Mental Health Month," she said. "We are having one of our meetings to discuss test taking strategies and general coping strategies as the test season approaches. We are working on plans for our walk on the trails around Carrboro to wrap up the month as the testing season begins. ‘Decreasing the stigma’ was the preferred focus from the survey responses, Our Instagram is up and running, with my weekly Friday mental health check-ins and the posts from earlier this year welcoming back the cohorts to in-person school.”

“In addition, our funding is being used to purchase fidget toys for students and resources to get the word out in our school community about our club and the safe space we provide. We have quite a few ideas for next year, when we're back fully for in-person school, including the creation of a physical safe space or Zen garden, increased awareness of Student Services, a Mental Health Awareness Month display in the library and ‘mental health buckets’ for each teacher. We have many, many plans, as you can see, and we can't wait to act on them!”

As the Shout Out wound down, students shared more goals and challenges for consideration, especially voicing anticipation and trepidation at the prospect of everyone returning to the school buildings in August. One student said that many of her peers need to learn how to stop the Go Go Go mentality and try to re-frame school as more than just academic based.

CHCCS Director, System of Care, Janet Cherry, said, “What an honor it was to celebrate our high school mental health advocates on their year-long work in promoting mental health wellness and ‘Ending the Silence’. To be in that space to hear their 'mental health action plans' was, to say the least, priceless and impressive. There is more to come from this small but mighty and determined team of student advocates.”

Dellicker at ECHHS said, “Our hope, as always, is to continue to elevate the voices and leadership of students. Our students are incredible advocates and passionate leaders that are doing amazing work in their communities and the more we can do to lift their voices, the better.”

And Priest at CHHS said, “I want to express my extreme sense of pride and inspiration for the work that our students are doing in our district to advocate for their mental health and the mental health of their peers. Our students have faced unprecedented challenges, and continue to demonstrate resilience, grace, and compassion for each other, which is truly phenomenal to witness.”