If there’s one thing 2018 has taught the world, it’s that today’s youth shouldn’t be underestimated.
You’ve probably heard that they’re organizing for gun violence prevention, defending LGBTQ rights, and defining global feminism. What you may know less about is the new generation of activists raising awareness about mental illness and developing innovative solutions to help bridge the gap between needing help and actually getting it.
These young advocates are developing apps, founding nonprofit organizations, coordinating fundraising drives, and building campus-wide support networks. They’re taking advantage of the work activists have previously done to decrease the stigma of talking about mental health, and they’re creating their own legacy by fundamentally changing the way young people discuss and seek help for mental illness.
Kelly Davis, director of peer advocacy, supports, and services at Mental Health America (MHA), founded the nonprofit organization’s Collegiate Mental Health Innovation Council last year in order to help bring together these kinds of young activists. To do so, Davis solicited applications from students and recent graduates whose work goes beyond raising awareness.
Davis, 25, says young people interested in mental health advocacy can try sharing their stories; learning about local, state, and federal policies; and getting involved with community or national organizations.
“I would say that when you start talking about these issues, or even if you’re not, you’ll be so surprised how many people you’re constantly interacting with are experiencing similar things,” says Davis.
Here are eight youth mental activists — many of whom also serve on MHA’s council:
Arheghan, a 17-year-old from Shaker Heights, Ohio, who uses the pronoun “they,” started their activism working on LGBTQ issues. It wasn’t long before Arheghan noticed the “intersection between mental health and queer identity.” A hostile school climate, for example, can negatively affect the mental and emotional well-being of LGBTQ youth. So last year, Arheghan applied to join the youth ambassador council of The Trevor Project, a national nonprofit organization that provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBTQ youth.
Arheghan says the bi-monthly ambassador council trainings have provided tools to integrate mental health awareness and advocacy in their LGBTQ advocacy at school. That has included talking with school administrators about discrimination and bathroom use policies, and focusing on how rules that explicitly protect LGBTQ youth can positively influence their mental health.
This fall, Arheghan will attend Ohio State University and is looking forward to exploring how queer people of color, in particular, experience mental illness. “I think that now it’s so much easier to talk about mental health issues than it was five years ago,” says Arheghan. “I feel obligated to take advantage of that.”
When Bryant was in high school, she found herself in a “dark and low place” as she dealt with depression and bullying. Though she struggled to graduate, Bryant ultimately attended East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C., where a conversation with a professor forever changed her life. As Bryant, now 21, recounted how alone she felt in high school, the professor urged her to “become the person you wish you had [to relate to] when you were younger.” So, in 2016, she founded The Mental Elephant, a multi-platform outlet that raises awareness about mental health. Its resources include a monthly newsletter, a website with information about mental illness, a YouTube channel, and campus and community events. Bryant hopes The Mental Elephant gives people the opportunity to meet friends, learn basic facts about mental health, and reduce stigma.
Bryant, who just graduated, has plans to turn The Mental Elephant into a nonprofit organization and introduce its campus programming to other schools, including historically black colleges.
“I will definitely say that talking about mental illness can be extremely difficult in the African-American community. A lot of black people have been raised on strength and being able to handle things,” she says, noting that current events have intensified feelings of anxiety and depression for some. “It’s difficult to handle, to wake up every day as an African American and see everything in the news.”
Bryant says that young people who want to get involved in mental health advocacy can start small, even if it’s just talking genuinely to a friend or family member. “It doesn’t have to be protesting,” she says. “Something small, personal, just in your family — any step, big or small, is still a step forward.”
Frost, a 20-year-old rising junior at Drexel University, founded a suicide prevention initiative called the Buddy Project five years ago. The nonprofit pairs teens and young adults with a buddy, not as therapy or counseling but to help young people develop positive peer support relationships. Since its launch, more than 200,000 people have signed up for a buddy. She’s currently building an app to pair buddies and expects it to launch by the beginning of next year.
Frost, who regularly tweets about mental health awareness and advocacy, says she’s watched over the past several years as the taboo and stigma of talking about mental health has lessened. She believes the next step is bringing mental health education into every school.
“So many young people may not realize they have a mental illness until they’re much older,” says Frost. “It’s never talked about until it’s too late.”
In 2013, Orley’s brother died by suicide. Ten months later, Orley began attending the University of Michigan, where his brother had gone, knowing he wanted to make a difference for students dealing with mental illness.
Orley, 21, soon became a member of the Wolverine Support Network, a student organization that he says creates a “refreshingly vulnerable, empathetic, and inclusive space accessible to all University of Michigan students to be themselves and talk openly and honestly.”
The WSN offers weekly support meetings led by trained students and regular campus-wide events designed to relieve stress and build relationships. The meetings and events are open to everyone, not just students experiencing mental illness. One goal of WSN’s programming is to reduce the stigma associated with talking about mental health.
“Everyone has that power, whether they realize it or not, to flip the script and shift these social norms in even the smallest ways.”
Now Orley and one of his former classmates, Max Rothman (see below), hope to replicate the success of WSN at other campuses, and Orley has found special meaning in his work as the group’s executive director.
“I have struggled in varying ways over the past four-and-a-half years since my brother passed away,” he says, “but this outlet has brought out the best in me and helped alleviate that pain and confusion.”
Regittko, who identifies as queer, bisexual, and non-binary and uses the pronoun “they,” experienced an eating disorder that prompted them to start sharing their story online. Eventually, Regittko wanted to do more, particularly after losing a friend to anorexia, and reached out to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) to get involved in the organization’s work. From that came coordinating its annual fundraiser walk in Raleigh, N.C., a volunteer job Regittko has done for the past few years.
Regittko, 17, already had event-planning experience from their LGBTQ activism at
It’s also been important for Regittko to set firm boundaries so that the advocacy work doesn’t become overwhelming.
“That’s definitely something I think about a lot — advocating for mental health awareness support and treatment when I’m dealing with my own mental health recovery,” Regittko says. “Something you have to be aware of is that you have to take care of yourself before you take care of others.”
Like his former classmate Samuel Orley, Rothman knew he wanted to get involved in campus mental health advocacy before he started attending the University of Michigan.
While in middle school, Rothman lost a close friend in a tragic accident, and he began participating in a peer support program on campus. By the time he reached high school, where that program had originated, peer support was billed as something the “cool kids” did. Rothman knew about the Wolverine Support Network at the University of Michigan, which also operates on a peer model, and expressed interest in participating once he arrived on campus.
In the four years that Rothman, 22, spent at the University of Michigan, he served in leadership roles for WSN and advocated for mental health awareness through roles on the Central Student Government Mental Health Task Force, Athletes Connected, and Greek Life Mental Health Chairs. This year, he helped bring the rapper Logic to campus for a mental health awareness advocacy week. In 2017, he helped conduct student surveys about mental health, analyzed the results, and co-authored a report with 13 recommendations for administrators.
“I have no shame or fear in sharing the way I’m feeling and that hasn’t always been the case, not only for me, but for a lot of my peers,” says Rothman, who has struggled body image issues. “Being vulnerable and open is much more appreciated and encouraged than it has been in the past.”
A few years ago, Sethi was searching the internet for poetry and inspirational quotes. What he stumbled upon instead was an image of someone engaged in self-harm. Sethi decided to reach out to the person behind the post — a choice he says he made hundreds of times over with different people expressing pain and anguish via social media.
Sethi, a 20-year-old rising junior at Binghamton University in New York, decided to make his one-on-one efforts “scalable.” He created an app called Runaway that pairs users with a chat bot powered by artificial intelligence, as well as trained volunteers, so they can talk about what’s troubling them.
“I’ve seen a lot of people battling with mental health problems, and I just want to make sure I’m doing my best to bring positivity into people’s life, and encourage them to pay it forward,” he says.
In addition to creating the app, Sethi has helped organize campus events about mental health awareness. Those include educational talks about available services, a panel discussion hosted by mental health experts, and a “mental health fest” that featured student speakers, tables hosted by student groups, and yoga practice.
Sethi has plans to expand these efforts to other campuses in the northeast.
Southworth, 16, did something recently that most teens don’t do: She launched a nonprofit software development company.
Astra Labs felt like the natural next step for Southworth, who’d already created two apps, the mental health toolkit AnxietyHelper, and Verena, a “personal security system” for LGBTQ+ people. The new company will help Southworth, who lives in Los Angeles, focus her efforts on challenges that aren’t getting attention from Silicon Valley. Her next project, for example, is to develop an app powered by artificial intelligence that helps people living with schizophrenia or psychosis know whether or not they’re experiencing a hallucination.
“I feel like we need to start having more open conversations, and especially we need to start listening to mentally ill people,” says Southworth, who gave a TEDx talk last year about her own experience with anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts.
“Teens are stepping up to this conversation because we have to,” says Southworth. “We’re fighting for not only our health, but also for our friends and our future children.”
If you want to talk to someone or are experiencing suicidal thoughts, text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Here is a list of international resources.
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