Peer-led mental health program lets students know they’re not alone | New


When Emily Yao first joined Youth Connect during her sophomore year at Palo Alto High School, she thought it would be a good way to complete the hours of community service needed to graduate, but what ‘She didn’t realize at first, that’s the personal impact the organization would ultimately have on her.

Now elderly, Yao is still involved in the program, which emphasizes youth mental health, and said the experience gave her the tools to support her peers, clarified her own mental health and made her realize that she wanted to pursue mental health. as part of his eventual career path.

“It was just as if the students’ voices were truly appreciated in a way that I had never felt before,” Yao said.

Youth Connect is run by the Palo Alto-based nonprofit Youth Community Service and focuses on youth leadership and community building as a way to address mental health issues that many young people face.

“What we’re trying to harness is the power to just feel a sense of belonging, to understand that your existence has meaning and that you belong somewhere,” said Jennifer Lee-Thuresson, program manager. Youth Connect.

Students from various local high schools who come together through Youth Connect to work as peer leaders on a wide range of projects, all related in one way or another to mental health. Students have done everything from creating expert groups on suicide prevention to creating social media posts on resources for survivors of sexual violence.

The program currently has two cohorts of students, one based in Palo Alto and the other in the Sequoia Union High School District.

The idea for Youth Connect originated from a 2016 report by the United States Centers for Disease Conrol and Prevention on youth suicide groups in Palo Alto, which identified risk factors and described the positive impact that preventive measures can have on reducing suicides, said Ashley Yee-Mazawa, director of the Youth Connect program.

Youth Community Service realized that its current focus on service-learning could be used to help meet the mental health needs set out in the report, Yee-Mazawa said.

With funding from the City of Palo Alto and Santa Clara County, Youth Community Service launched Youth Connect, then called the Youth Connectedness Initiative, in the fall of 2017.

“The program really grew out of this idea of ​​the importance of connectivity as a protective factor for teens,” said Megan Davis, Youth Connect’s Peer Leadership Program Coordinator. “The program is grounded in this idea of ​​the importance of mental health awareness, conversation and de-stigma and suicide prevention.”

Since its inception, a hallmark of Youth Connect has been an emphasis on student leadership and empowering adolescents to decide the direction of the program.

“Young people are so often in the position of being told what to do or how to do something,” said Yee-Mazama. “They have a lot of ideas and abilities. We just have to give them the space to experience that and practice those skills.”

When Rein Vaska joined Youth Connect, he said it was the “first truly student-run organization” he had seen, allowing students the freedom to choose which projects they want to focus on.

Growing up in Palo Alto, Vaska said mental health issues like anxiety, depression and eating disorders were “extremely common” among his peers. As part of Youth Connect, Vaska was able to tackle some of these issues directly, creating videos on testing for anxiety and awareness of body positivity and body dysmorphia.

“Students really know the student body better than anyone,” said Vaska, who was with Youth Connect until he graduated from Palo Alto High this spring. “They will be the best at coming up with accessible ways that people would be interested in learning more about mental health and getting help.”

The projects Youth Connect is working on are often related to issues that are currently impacting the community. In early 2021, a series of students from Palo Alto took to social media to share their stories of sexual assault and rape.

Youth Connect responded by gathering information and resources on sexual violence and sharing them online. Yao’s work on this project made her feel sufficiently informed and comfortable to personally contact some of the students who had come forward, offering her support.

“The amount of gratitude I have heard from these people is really what made my work on Youth Connect so valuable,” said Yao. “These people felt so grateful to have people who listened to them, believed them and trusted them, that I felt that my work really made an impact.”

Youth Connect also takes an intergenerational approach, with students reaching out not only to their peers, but also to adults in the community. The group is organizing workshops for adults this fall to learn what actions they can take to positively contribute to the well-being of young people.

“The young people have identified needs and the young people have identified actions that they are specifically asking adults to take to support them,” said Lee-Thuresson, noting that the focus is on what students find effective, and not on what adults may want.

The pandemic has taken its toll on young people, who have been isolated from their friends and left to make connections on screens, said Davis, who added that there was a spike in teens going to the emergency room for mental health problems.

While Youth Connect has always worked on mental health issues, Yee-Mazama said the pandemic has caused the group to tie their work much more explicitly to the subject. Previously, many projects focused more broadly on connectivity and community building; now students focus directly on issues like loneliness and isolation.

Renny Argast, who joined Youth Connect this fall, said she has seen firsthand the impact of the pandemic on her peers and hopes her work on Youth Connect can help make a difference.

“Especially since it is during COVID, people are going through a particularly difficult time,” Argas said. “Being able to access mental health resources is really important. “

For Yao, during the pandemic, the combination of being cut off from her friends and dealing with the stress of the junior year made her feel anxious and disconnected. She was afraid to attend her virtual classes because she was late for her work.

Although Yao educated young people through Youth Connect about mental health supports in schools and encouraged students to start dialogues with their friends and family, she said she “was not listening to my own words.” Then something clicked.

“I realized that I am now the audience I once targeted with my work at Youth Connect,” Yao said. “The person I am now is the person I’m supposed to talk to.”

She decided to contact therapists at her school’s wellness center and said the support she received had helped her overcome the anxiety she was feeling and do better in school. Now she said she thought it was her mission to let other students know that there was support for them too.

“Reaching out might sound really scary, but once you get there, it’s worth it. It’s so precious, ”Yao said.

Help is available

Anyone who is feeling depressed, upset, or suicidal can call 800-784-2433 to speak to an emergency counselor. Residents of Santa Clara County can call 855-278-4204. Spanish speakers can call 888-628-9454.

People can reach trained counselors at Crisis Text Line by texting 741741.

Read more: How to help people in crisis

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