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Orange County High Schools Host Mental Health Summit

“You find bits and pieces of yourself when you’re lost,” Duke University student and author, Sophie Riegel, told the participants of  “Ending the Silence: Students United for Mental Health Awareness,” an Orange County Mental Health Summit. “The more you accept feelings of being lost, the greater your opportunity for growth,” Reigel said.

Riegel was one of four panelists who shared honest and poignant messages during a powerful forum on advocacy and awareness of mental health issues, held as a full day, virtual event on October 15. The participants were 60 selected high school students from CHCCS and Orange County Schools (OCS), and the Summit was co-hosted by both school districts and a local grassroots organization, Mental Health Community Connections (MHCC).

The Summit was the fruit of months-long planning, and it was originally scheduled as a live event on UNC campus. Thanks to a grant from the Public School Foundation and other generous donors, the partners collaborated with a goal to highlight the numerous needs for wellness support and to improve access to mental health services for Orange County teenagers.  

“The research was showing an increase across the country in depression and anxiety in teens,” said Beth Creech of Orange High School. “We were looking for a way to do a better job reaching our teenagers here in Orange County. What better way to do that than have teens take the lead? They know what works best for teens." 

"This was modeled after the Student Equity Conference that was held a few years ago," Creech said. "We decided to hold the Summit to better prepare teams of students from each high school to take on this task. We held focus groups with teens around the county and found a common theme of stigma connected to mental health. The stigma that surrounds the topic of mental health keeps people silent when they are struggling."

The discussions about stigma, inclusion and speaking up were prominent in the responses from the four panelists. In addition to Reigel, the other speakers were Schuyler Bailar, a trans athlete and LGTBQ and mental health activist, Ben Gear, a program coordinator for the Reintegration Support Network (RSN), a local nonprofit dedicated to support youth  and young adults in the community, and Dr. Mitch Prinstein, a UNC professor of psychology whose career research has focused on issues tied to inclusion and exclusion among youth, and the author of the book, "Popular." 

Director of Title 1 and Family Engagement, Roslyn Moffitt, served as moderator for the panel, and the questions she asked were developed by the students participating in the Summit. 

It was incredibly powerful and moving to see over a year of hard work come together in such a beautiful way,” East Chapel Hill High School Mental Health Specialist, Laura Dellicker, said. “It was different than we had imagined due to Covid, but our student leaders - who are truly leaders in every aspect of the word - didn't let the virtual platform stop them. The level of thought that went into their questions, their willingness to be vulnerable and share their own experiences, and their commitment to bringing what they learned back to their schools was awe-inspiring.”

Dellicker continued, “As adults, particularly adults who went to graduate school and have dedicated years of our lives to learning and studying certain topics, it can be easy to think that we have the answers and we know what to do. And that isn't always the best way to make sustainable change, especially in a high school. This event was about elevating the voices of students. Our students are the real experts, and real sustainable, powerfulchange will come from them.” 

The Summit opened with a welcome and introduction by CHCCS Director of Systems of Care, Janet Cherry. Next came the keynote panel, which ran for nearly 90 minutes, and clearly could have gone on much longer. The panelists all shared a wealth of personal stories, backed up with statistics and strategies. They all emphasized the importance of sharing challenges with others, describing honestly their own mental health conditions.

“There are a lot of ways to help someone without giving direct advice,” Reigel said. “And we need to remind parents that the priority is helping teens find people to talk to, not just to their parents.”

Bailar added, “Be there for people, but don’t think you can do more than your emotional capacity allows.”

Ei Ei Ko, a junior at ECHHS, said, “This mental health summit was such a great experience, not only for the students but also for all the adults who joined, it allowed so many amazing views from students and the speakers. Not only did we learn about self care and different stories and advice from others, but we got to speak up about how schools impact our mental state. Mental health is a big topic, not only in schools but throughout the world. It is so important to speak out and use our voices during this time. You made it through 100% of your worst days and remember that we all have trials and triumphs."  

Following the panel, groups broke out into discussion sessions to air their concerns and share stories in the smaller settings.

Our students are under a lot of pressure from lots of different directions, and many of them feel that they are completely alone in that struggle,” Creech said. “Many students talked in the focus groups about the enormous pressure they are under to build this amazing resume. They need to be the best student, athlete, artist, community member.... As adults and parents, we need to be mindful of how much pressure our teens are under. We can't think of discussions around mental illness as being 'family business' that you shouldn't talk about. The goal of the Teen Mental Health Summit was to start the process of opening up conversations about mental health not just with our teens at school but also in their homes."

The process for choosing student representatives was carefully designed to maximize diversity of voices and backgrounds. Traditional CHCCS and OCS high schools each selected eight students, while alternative high schools could select four. Most participants were sophomores and juniors, and the stated criteria included a capacity for leadership, the confidence to serve as an advocate, and personal experience with mental illness, either through a family member, close friend of self. Most important was the commitment to participate through this school year as a team member to develop plans for their respective school environments.  

Each high school also sent an adult team leader whose duties ranged from selecting the participants to facilitating the pre-Summit meeting with students and agreeing to gather the student leaders at least bi-monthly, after the Summit to help them implement the School-Based Plans. The leaders will also coordinate  an end-of-year survey in May 2021.

After a lunch break, Tiffany Boston of the CHCCS Office of Equity and Inclusion, presented “How to be an Advocate.” Boston said, “I think this event was timely. It was powerful to have a collection of student voices and identities learn more about the importance of their mental health, and different ways to address the disparities that are impacting the communities around them. Being able to watch student leaders get empowered so that they can empower others shows there is a strong desire to navigate strengthening our mental health resources. I'm grateful for those who organized the event as well. It further demonstrates their commitment to taking strides towards ensuring more equitable outcomes for the social emotional health of our student population.” 

In addition to staff and students from CHCCS and OCS, members from the Mental Health Community Connections (MHCC) were invaluable to producing the Summit. MHCC is comprised of community members representing a variety of organizations. 

Barbara Elder, a former teacher at Estes Hills Elementary School, is a core member of MHCC. “The seeds for the Orange County inaugural mental health summit were planted in 2016 by MHCC, an informal coalition of organizations and advocates,” Elder said.  “Both NAMIOrange and Faith Connections on Mental Illness -- two long standing, local groups which support people living with mental health challenges, advocate on their behalf, and  educate the wider public regarding mental illness -- were integral in welcoming diverse representation to be part of MHCC as this brain disorder somehow impacts everyone.   One of MHCC's early accomplishments has been to have National Children's Mental Health Awareness Day recognized in both school systems.”

“The identification of teens as having important and unique mental health needs, often undermet, grew largely from the involvement of five local high school teenagers in 2016,” Elder said. “The year's summit, ‘Ending the Silence: Teens United for Mental Health,’ has been a labor of love.”