What is disappointing is how much of that enthusiasm wanes come June 1. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s fantastic that the topic of mental health gets the positive attention that it does this month, especially considering that for many, the topic is still very charged.
In recent years, society has made huge strides in reducing the stigma around mental illness. For instance, seeking help for depression and anxiety is becoming quite common. You don’t even need to leave your home to see a therapist with telehealth and text-based options. At the same time, suicide rates among teens are rising at an alarming rate and no one can quite pinpoint why.
People have strong feelings about why teens are struggling today more than ever, and I hear from a fair share of adults who believe that they have the solution. However, if we knew what was wrong, wouldn’t we have solved the problem by now?
My work centers on teen mental health by managing the You Be You Teen Mental Health Campaign in local schools in the Greater Kansas City area. Our campaign seeks to encourage students to accept themselves and others as they are, and to embrace the concept of making progress in their lives rather than perfection. The campaign is led by a student group at each school—a critical component of You Be You – – and I help support their efforts, keep them on track to reach their goals throughout the year, as well as provide resources for therapy, staff and parent education through my organization, Jewish Family Services. You Be You provides students with materials to share, including t-shirts, stickers and posters, all with affirming messages. You Be You supports student-organized programming throughout the year, including self-care activities during free periods, spirit days that center on self-acceptance and other activities that promote a cultural shift away from perfectionism toward radical self-acceptance.
More than 20,000 local students have been touched by this positive mental wellness campaign.
“I think the campaign is amazing,” said one student participant. “Spreading the message of self-love is important and You Be You is an incredible facet of that mission at our school. Thank you to the campaign for its support.”
Some say the You Be You campaign won’t be effective because it is too “soft” and doesn’t get to the root of the issues that lead to teen suicide. On the contrary; the research suggests that resiliency is a major protective factor against suicide, as is social connectedness, both of which the You Be You campaign promotes.
I believe that what we are doing with the You Be You campaign and how we are doing it are at the forefront of suicide prevention. I just wish that more people understood that in order to create real change, we need longer than a month to address mental health. We need comprehensive mental health programs to be integrated into the school curriculum the way that physical activity has become a required course. It is an easy topic to brush to the side to make room for subjects with a more quantifiable impact. If we want our teens to be successful in life and mentally healthy, we must teach them skills like resiliency and the importance of social connection. We must do so as if their lives depend on it, because, if you ask me, they do.
(NOTE: Sarah Link Ferguson is the coordinator for the Greater Kansas City Mental Health Coalition, housed at Jewish Family Services of Greater Kansas City. She also administers the You Be You teen mental health campaign that will begin its third year in Kansas City area schools this fall.)