Friday, May 24

When the biggest advocates for student mental health are students

Last October, to commemorate Mental Health Awareness Week, a group of students at Sacopee Valley High School in Hiram, Maine, created the annual Hope Board. Shaped like an enormous tulip and displayed in the atrium, the board was covered in anonymous adolescent aspirations. Some students hoped to pass driver’s training or have a successful playoff season. Others expressed more complicated wishes. “Being happier than angry,” one student wrote. Another wrote: “I hope people are kinder and more mature.”

Camryn Baron, 17, created the council as the founder of Sacopee’s Yellow Tulip Team, a student group dedicated to mental health. “It’s an outlet for some children to be able to outwardly express and vocalize something that bothers them,” she said.

Ms. Baron has struggled with an eating disorder, anxiety and depression; she is bisexual and hasn’t always felt supported. “The things that many of us push back or struggle with here — being able to share them with other people is validating,” she said.

Sacopee’s Yellow Tulip Team is one of about 150 clubs supported by the Yellow Tulip Project, a nonprofit mental health education and advocacy organization. Co-founded in 2016 by Julia Hansen, a Maine high school senior who lost her two best friends to suicide, the nonprofit works to destigmatize mental illness and help students prioritize their emotional well-being .

At Sacopee Valley, the club plays upbeat music to welcome students every Monday and shares mental health information through morning announcements. Each autumn he plants a garden of hope (this year 500 tulip bulbs) and will celebrate the resilience of flowers in spring with a day of workshops and activities dedicated to the well-being of young people. In regular group meetings, students might discuss stress reduction strategies, as well as homophobia, socioeconomic inequality, and various stigmas that many teens experience in their conservative-leaning rural community.

In recent years, nonprofit organizations that support mental health clubs in schools have found their programs in high demand. The increase is the result of two phenomena: the growing number of adolescents with mental health problems and the scarcity of resources to help them. As schools search for solutions, students often lead the effort.

“When we think about mental health, we’re not just talking about crisis intervention,” said Lisa Padilla, a senior behavioral and social scientist at the RAND Corporation, who has studied mental health clubs. “Peer-based organizations are creating an environment in the school that says, ‘We value your well-being and know that it is part of who you are as a whole person.’ This message goes a long way in making students feel safe and empowered to talk openly about their needs.”