Summer Internship on Mental Health Advocacy Empowers Youth
Fourteen students from Pittsburgh and Allegheny County had a transformative experience this summer through a virtual internship focused on mental health and advocacy. The internship, part of Partner4Work's Learn & Earn Program, was facilitated by Jewish Healthcare Foundation (JHF) staff, Deborah Murdoch and Carol Frazer, together with Erin Barr of Jewish Family and Community Services (JFCS) and Namita Dwarakanath of Children's Hospital Pittsburgh.
Students from six schools learned about mental wellness, conducted research on mental health disorders, and identified coping strategies and actionable ways to help a struggling friend. They also learned about using art and research data for advocacy and had the opportunity to share their perspectives on responding to teen mental health with community stakeholders.
The interns learned about advocacy skills from several guest speakers, including Rev. Sally Jo Snyder, acting director of Consumer Health Coalition; Ayala Rosenthal, youth advocate with the PA Youth Advocacy Network; Sarah Pesi, JCC teen engagement coordinator; and Morgan Overton, JHF community engagement and policy associate. Intern Puja Neopaney said these presentations taught her a great deal: "I have an interest in diversity and inclusion, and it's really nice to know that I can advocate for something I'm passionate about." Students also learned about potential careers during informational interviews, including an interview about psychiatry with JHF Board Member Dr. Mindy Hutchinson.
For the finale, students presented suggestions for mental wellness in education, workplaces, and communities. The youth recommended that adults should model mental wellness and listen to teens more often, and that leaders across settings should incorporate mental wellness resources and education into their systems.
The Learn & Earn program empowered youth to speak up about their ideas and needs as the new school year approaches, in a time when supporting teen mental health is essential. During the education presentation, Learn & Earn intern Musya Presman shared her thoughts: "I think it's really important to start open conversations and create more safe spaces for mental health in school and at home." The students also suggested that schools provide tailored mental health education to students and faculty, create safe spaces to better support teens, and acknowledge how their home responsibilities impact their mental health and ability to succeed in school, particularly during the pandemic.
After attending the Learn & Earn students' presentation, Stand Together Project Coordinator Danyelle Borish said she was impressed with the students' knowledge and "their ability to assess their own schools and provide introspective solutions to the challenges they face." Borish said, "It's so important that youth find their voice and advocate for themselves, especially in the difficult age of adolescence. Adults, even with the best intentions, can sometimes 'miss the mark' and miss out on opportunities to support youth in ways that work for them." Borish, who guest presented for the interns with Stand Together Project Director Michael Gruber, is working to adapt the Stand Together program to a virtual model for schools in the Fall.
Interns also presented to the Partner4Work and JFCS Learn & Earn staff to share ideas for incorporating mental wellness programming into future workforce development programs. They shared the connection between mental health and commitment to work and encouraged worksite supervisors to check-in on mental health with student interns, especially during the pandemic. Students shared feedback that offering an internship focused on mental health and advocacy would be beneficial in future summers.