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Building a Youth Advocacy Movement: Local Students Present at Rep. Dan Miller's Mental Health Summit

The students behind “Igniting a Youth Advocacy Movement”: From left to right, Ayala Rosenthal, Abby Rickin-Marks, Jalen Achilles, Julie Hawk, Sydney Smith, and Abigail Dischner.

The teenagers participating in JHF's Youth Advocacy Network opened their session at the State Rep. Dan Miller's Disability and Mental Health Summit on March 14 by asking participants: Have you ever been passionate about something? Have you had an experience with disability or mental health issues? Have youth ever inspired you to take action? Their goal was to inspire others to take action.

The design and facilitation of the session, held at the Beth El Congregation of the South Hills, was entirely student-led. The panel discussion was moderated by Montour High School freshman Abigail Dischner.

The youth advocates described the reasons each of them chose to get involved, the advocacy projects they were working on, and how adults could best support them in their efforts. Panelists included: Abby Rickin-Marks, a sophomore at Fox Chapel Area High School; Ayala Rosenthal, a senior at Yeshiva Schools; Jalen Achilles, a student at Urban Pathways and member of A+ Schools; Julie Hawk, a Beaver County Youth Ambassador and student at Freedom High School; and Sydney Smith, a freshman at Robert Morris University and former Beaver County Youth Ambassador. 

Whether through personal experience or concern for their peers, the youth advocates each demonstrated a strong passion for improving mental health supports for teens.

Their discussion and advocacy projects focused on destigmatizing mental health, building safe and inclusive communities in schools, increasing school resources for mental health services, and ensuring equitable resources for all schools. 

Through A+ Schools and Education Uncontained, Abby Rickin-Marks and Jalen Achilles received small grants to raise awareness around the issues of discrimination in schools and the experience of minorities in schools and how each impacts mental health.

Ayala Rosenthal organized a safeTALK suicide awareness training for her peers and panel discussion for the Orthodox community on the issue of teen mental health. Ayala's ongoing work has been supported by JHF.

Julie Hawk is a leader in the Beaver County Youth Ambassadors Program, a youth-driven program that promotes awareness of mental health, leadership and self-advocacy among youth, and decreased stigma. Sydney Smith, a former Youth Ambassador, is translating her advocacy skills to building awareness on a college campus as a freshman at RMU.

The youth advocates also provided advice about the ways adults can support youth to take action. They encouraged adults to get to know youth and the issues they are passionate about, trust them to take a lead, and create opportunities for them to raise their voice and connect with decision-makers. 

JHF will continue to support these youth advocates and build collaborations, including with state Youth Resource Coordinator Jamal Ford, who attended.

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