By Allison Tu
In January of this year, the death of Seven Bridges, a 10-year-old, marked the eighth student suicide in Jefferson County Public Schools in the 2018-19 school year alone. In just seven months, this rate has already far surpassed last year’s three suicides.
Kentucky’s students, clearly, are struggling—on the 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, nearly one in three high schoolers reported being so sad or hopeless that they’ve stopped pursuing activities they normally enjoy. One in seven had seriously considered attempting suicide.
Worse still, these challenges don’t stop when students leave high school. Poor youth mental health can set the stage for a lifetime of challenges: according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, half of all mental health disorders develop by age 14, and three-quarters by age 24.
Beyond High School
Looking beyond high school, college campuses across the nation have seen unprecedented demand for counseling services that overwhelms their capacities. When it comes to the workplace, it’s estimated that 200 million workdays are lost each year due to depression, contributing to 17 to 44 billion dollars of lost productivity.
Given these downstream consequences, Kentucky’s youth are not only grappling with poor mental health—which can lead to poor academic performance, substance use, and suicide—every day, but many will also continue to struggle later in life. This poses a further future challenge to employers, potentially increasing absenteeism and limiting the available workforce.
Focus on Youth Perspective
Altogether, Kentucky is now facing a spiraling mental health problem, one that’s amplified when the voices of students, the most important stakeholder, are overlooked.
The lack of youth perspectives in developing mental health programs has resulted in unsuccessful education and prevention initiatives—for some, their only suicide prevention education, which is technically mandated for all Kentucky middle and high schoolers, consists of a bookmark printed with the suicide prevention hotline. No student would ever suggest that a mere slip of paper, without even any accompanying discussion, could ever pass for effective education.
To me, this lack of student voice represented a missed opportunity. During my sophomore year of high school, when I saw students struggling with stress, potentially undiagnosed depressive disorders, and even substance use, self-harm, and suicidality, every day, I knew I couldn’t stay on the sidelines any longer.
Called to Action
To capitalize on the insights lost when youth voices weren’t captured, I founded StAMINA, the Student Alliance for Mental Health Innovation and Action, with the urgent mission to increase effective mental health education, prevention and treatment for Kentucky youth through a bottom-up approach.
StAMINA is based on the principle that students, themselves—if consulted as solution partners—can offer crucial insights into developing new mental health policies and programs.
Two years later, StAMINA is a thriving organization of over 20 high school and college students across the state following a three-pronged blueprint of Learn, Build, and Act. Our Learn phase involved conducting a need-finding assessment to recruit youth perspectives and introduce student voice into the mental health conversation.
Over the course of a year, we partnered with the University of Louisville to conduct a qualitative research study about youth mental health attitudes, capturing voices and insights from Kentucky youth, parents, healthcare professionals, and educators. Over 1,200 minutes of collected interviews, the majority of which were conducted by StAMINA’s student team, revealed a wide range of pressing opportunities to engage students and their adult allies to improve youth mental health.
Our Build phase has involved creating a coalition of stakeholders supporting the youth mental health movement. We’ve worked with leaders in government, healthcare, business and academia and established partnerships with Kentucky’s most prominent mental health-focused organizations.
Through over a dozen presentations at conferences across the nation, we’ve educated over 1,000 attendees about our research findings and the importance of student voice in combatting poor mental health. Most importantly, through Youth Summits across the state, we’ve inspired nearly 100 high schoolers and college students to become mental health advocates.
Many of these stakeholders have contributed to StAMINA’s Act phase by participating in our full-day Ideathon. In September 2018, nearly fifty attendees convened in Louisville for a structured design and prototyping competition. Using the research insights as a launching point, the group produced a compelling array of new program and outreach ideas, two of which are currently in production: a student podcast and adult-youth conversation cards.
We’re excited about the work we’ve accomplished to date but are eager and impatient for StAMINA’s continued progress. The stakes—both in Kentucky and across the country—are high.
Unaddressed youth mental health issues are pernicious, cascading across life’s outcomes, standing in the way of happiness and college and career success. Which is why, now more than ever, youth voices must be elevated and supported when it comes to the issues that matter to us the most. Students are always told that they are the future—but we can do more than that. Empowered, passionate students are the present.
-Allison Tu is a senior at duPont Manual High School and the Founder and Executive Director of StAMINA.