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Youth Advocates Expand Activities for Mental Health Awareness Month

Abby Rickin-Marks facilitating the conversation with State Senator Lindsey Williams from her home.

Students from the JHF's Youth Advocacy Network joined their voices to advocate for improved teen mental health resources as part of Pennsylvania's Mental Health Awareness Month. In addition to sharing messages about mental wellness – particularly while experiencing the uncertainties of COVID-19, with their peers on social media – students met with state policymakers via Zoom to share their concerns.

Twelve youth advocates, attending Fox Chapel, North Allegheny, Shaler, Winchester Thurston, and Shadyside, met with Pennsylvania State Senator Lindsey Williams on May 29 to discuss mental health issues facing students. Students emphasized the importance of incorporating mental health education into school curricula not as one-off events but ongoing education, especially as schools balance recovering from the problems that COVID-19 has exacerbated. Increased opportunities for students and school leaders to learn about the issue would promote a better response. Youth also advocated for more directed funding for mental health that could be used to improve counselor to student ratios.

When asked about ways for youth to become more engaged with advocacy, Senator Williams recommended that youth connect with elected officials at every level, from school boards to the Commonwealth policymakers, and that youth can contribute by volunteering, backing individuals they wish to see in office, and voting as they are able.

JHF youth advocate Abby Rickin-Marks, who facilitated much of the conversation, reflected, "It's always nice to have a Senator, or any elected official, that's really invested with students and is willing to listen and answer questions." Rickin-Marks has loved being involved with the Youth Advocacy Network because it enables her to serve the community. "For me personally, what I've always wanted to do is help other people. I really do believe that is my purpose in life."

Youth from the advocacy network also participated in a virtual dialogue with Representative Michael Schlossberg, chair of the bi-partisan Mental Health Caucus, on May 18th. This conversation was part of Virtual Mental Health Awareness Week 2020, presented by the PA Care Partnership, Youth MOVE PA, and the PA Department of Human Services. Rep. Schlossberg encouraged youth to advocate for mental health awareness by sharing their personal stories, as he has used his to advocate for change, and by reaching out to elected officials.

To empower youth advocates' voices online and create a space for conversation during Mental Health Awareness Month in May, the PA Youth Advocacy Program started a mental health awareness digital campaign. Youth advocates are creating content for the program's Instagram page and gathering quotes, photos, and videos from individuals who want to share their mental health advocacy stories. Anyone interested in sharing their advocacy story for the mental health awareness campaign can contact Alyce Palko at palko@jhf.org

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