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Youth from 26 School Districts Advocate for Teen Mental Health

The packed youth mental health advocacy workshop at the Disability and Mental Health Summit on March 3, 2020.

"Do you have friends with whom you feel safe talking about mental health? Is there one adult at your school who you feel comfortable going to for support?" asked Bridget Hughes, a student at Winchester Thurston High School. Bridget and several other student leaders opened the Youth Mental Health Advocacy Workshop on March 3rd with some important questions. While almost all 144 students attending stood to respond that they did have a friend or adult at their school to talk about mental health, fewer than ten stood-up in response to a question asking whether their school had enough resources. Bridget then reminded the students that by attending this workshop they are all now activists who can make a difference in advocating for mental health resources.

The youth mental health advocacy workshop, organized by the Jewish Healthcare Foundation (JHF) as a special offering at the Disability and Mental Health Summit hosted by Representative Dan Miller at the Pittsburgh Convention Center, aimed to gather youth perspectives on the issue of teen mental health and provide an opportunity to voice these concerns to state legislators. Students also learned mindfulness techniques for managing stress and anxiety through the facilitation of "Mindfulness Moments" by Dr. Will Davies from Allegheny Health Network's CHILL Project currently being implemented at Baldwin High School.

Youth-led breakout groups discussed youth concerns related to mental health.

Twenty-six school districts from Allegheny, Beaver, and Fayette County were represented at the event. The JHF adolescent behavioral health team, Deborah Murdoch and Carol Frazer, engaged 18 youth and six organizational partners in the design and implementation of the workshop. Partners included the Allegheny County Department of Human Services Stand Together Program, the Beaver County Youth Ambassadors Program, Allegheny Health Network's CHILL Project, A+ Schools TeenBloc, and the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh Second Floor.

Students that have been engaged in JHF's youth advocacy efforts over the past year selected five advocacy priorities for the focus of small group discussions: creating safe and inclusive school communities; promoting suicide prevention and awareness; treating all health as equal (mental health matters); addressing disparities in mental health; and educating parents and students on mental health. Each group, facilitated by a student leader, gathered youth perspectives on the issue and questions around pending legislation to present to a panel of state legislators including: State Senator Pam Iovino, State Senator Lindsay Williams, Representative Sara Innamorato, Representative Anita Kulik, Representative Natalie Mihalek, and Representative Dan Miller. Students also had the opportunity to hear from PA Department of Human Services Secretary, Theresa Miller, and David Buono, of the PA Insurance Department about the Governor's Reach Out PA: Your Mental Health Matters campaign.

Representatives from each student group presented their concerns and questions to the legislative panel. Students urged legislators to support training to help their trusted teachers respond to their mental health needs and to improve access to and quality of care for inpatient and outpatient mental health services. They asked what policy makers are doing to reduce the drastic differences they've observed in the number of trained mental health counselors and social workers available to students in each school district. The participants emphasized their interest in partnering with legislators to promote change and the shared the importance of including youth, as experts, in decision making. After the panel, several schools and legislators connected to express their interest in continuing the discussion with a visit to their school and district offices.

As JHF presented opportunities to continue to promote the youth voice around the issue of teen mental health and connect with the PA Youth Advocacy, Jalen Achilles, a senior at Urban Pathways and member of A+ Schools Teen Bloc, shared her experience as part of the network: "Being involved with the Jewish Healthcare Foundation's Youth Advocacy Network has given me opportunities that I never would have had to share my perspective on teen mental health, including going to Harrisburg for Children's Mental Health Awareness Day and participating in events like these. I just want to thank them and encourage you all to get involved." 

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