Making Mental Health Top of Mind

I was in the office working on our next leadership training event and up popped a text message from an adviser in rural Oregon—another suicide. This was the school’s third this year, and the year was only half over. The school looked to the activities director and student leaders to help bring the school and community back together. They were grieving, too. In the months to come, this would only be the beginning of more phone calls, emails, and requests for support in our schools. I thought to myself: I studied math education. How do I help? What do I say? What can we do as an organization to help?

It was time to reach out for support. When I did, I found a friend at iHeartRadio who was involved in the #BeWell campaign. This led me to Robin Henderson, PsyD, chief executive of behavioral health for Providence Oregon and clinical liaison to Well Being Trust (WBT), a national foundation dedicated to supporting emotional well-being in our nation. WBT had recently launched a campaign called #BeWell to eliminate the stigma associated with mental health. They had been in the “awareness phase,” using radio and celebrity influencers to spread the message, and were now heading into their next phase of activation.

As advisers, we know that no one else knows how to activate students quite as well as student leaders! As we looked for help in supporting students with mental health issues, we partnered with #ICANHELP because social media is central to mental health, and this organization rocks at activating youth. We also worked with YouthLine, an established teen crisis helpline and part of Lines For Life, the Oregon suicide hotline that specializes in teen-to-teen crisis support.

Together for the Cause

The Oregon Association of Student Councils (OASC) committed its service-learning time at their 2018 summer camp to start conversations about addressing mental health in schools. Hundreds of high school students worked together in focus groups to come up with their ideas of mental health needs. Little did we know that this work would become the basis for the #BeWell Student Advisory Council. We knew we needed more time than just summer camp—the students had strong momentum and wanted to continue conversations to help themselves and their friends. We worked throughout the year to accomplish goals each month and build awareness for mental health issues.

In August, the OASC created an application process and the #BeWell Student Advisory Council was formed. Students from Oregon, Washington, and California applied to this diverse group composed of rural and urban students in eighth grade through college, student council members, YouthLine volunteers, members of the LGBTQ community, Providence Health & Services, iHeartRadio street teams, and #ICANHELP interns. Together, they worked on school mental health initiatives, social media campaigns, and other special projects. They have created the “BeWell Hub,” a #Work2BeWell website (http://work2bewell.wellbeingtrust.org) that houses mental health resources and inspiration with the goal of making content and help accessible to everyone.

In September 2018, many of our students created and shared quick “Back to School Myth” videos to help ease the anxiety of going back to school. In the following October, the OASC joined forces with YouthLine and went on the road for its annual regional tour of middle level schools. During this week, we worked with more than 1,000 students from more than 50 middle level schools—teaching leadership skills in the morning and learning about signs of stress in the afternoon. Students even made posters to take back to their schools to share their knowledge with peers. We are excited to continue this partnership and are in the midst of planning our 2019 activities.

Our state conference in November featured more than 1,500 students and advisers from more than 100 high schools across Oregon. Henderson addressed the students from the main stage, and we hosted a variety of workshop sessions, including an incredibly compelling hourlong session empowering youth to tell their stories based on articles that students from our advisory board wrote for OZY Media, an international online news and culture media company. These brave students told their truth and enabled others to tell theirs, inspiring hope and healing for students and their advisers.

Student Voice in Action

Some of our students felt called to legislative action and used their voices to create “Students for a Healthy Oregon.” Volunteer lobbyists from Providence Health & Services partnered to lift their voices for two important bills: HB 2191, which would give students the right to take a “mental health day” and be excused from classes to deal with mental health issues; and HB2954, which would fund five pilot schools that would screen all students for depression and anxiety. Both bills are still working their way through the Oregon legislature, giving voice to students’ desires for mental and emotional well-being. You can see students’ testimony on HB 2191 at https://tinyurl.com/hb2191.

Our friends at the Texas Association of Student Councils invited us to join them January 22, 2019, in promoting “Hi, How Are You?” Day in our schools, where students and staff were encouraged to check in on a friend, family member, or loved one and ask how they were doing. We enjoyed wearing green (the color for mental health), reaching out, and posting on social media. Even our friends at Hong Kong International School joined us and wore colored stickers to match up and meet new friends at school.

In another initiative this spring, our students worked on creating podcasts that will be featured on the Providence St. Joseph Health Dash Radio channel at #Talk2BeWell. They also taught a workshop at the state spring conference to help their fellow students prepare for Mental Health Month this past May. Students also joined with NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Oregon to support their walk in May, supported their SMART program, and learned the NAMI “In Our Own Voice” protocol for sharing their own stories.

In the same month, we also hosted a day for teams of administrators, counselors, teachers, and students to come together and have meaningful discussions and create prevention plans. Guest Justin Coffey, M.D.,—a national leading expert and the son of the founder of Zero Suicide—presented a session titled “Youth Suicide: A Necessary Conversation.” This important conversation set the stage for next year and also provided a safe healing space for schools that have suffered from student suicides so they can reflect and move forward together.

Real Empowerment Means Real Results

All of this work has resulted in a grassroots student movement to improve mental health awareness and eliminate the stigma across our state and, hopefully, our nation. Students are talking, sharing, and creating “mental health awareness” weeks in their schools. They are feeling empowered through social media, podcasts, vlogs, and by meeting together regularly to discuss these important issues.

Your student councils can follow a similar pattern—whether it’s forming an advisory council, conducting workshops on various mental health issues, becoming advocates to the legislature, or promoting Mental Health Month. Survey your students and work to address their topics of concern.

A year ago, I never dreamed we’d be where we are or would have accomplished what we have. The adviser plays a crucial role as a facilitator, listening to students and then being there to answer questions, help solve problems, teach project planning skills, and keep students within reasonable timelines. Remember, an adviser’s job is not to do the work for students, but to listen, mentor, guide, and be there to support their goals. When you do that, truly amazing things can be accomplished.


Sara Nilles is executive director of the Oregon Association of Student Councils. Robin Henderson, PsyD, is chief executive of behavioral health for Providence Health & Services of Oregon.


Sidebar: What Can YOU Do?

  • Listen to students. Have an open dialogue. Ask them to pinpoint key mental health issues and have them brainstorm possible solutions. From there, the students will guide the movement.
  • Raise awareness in school. Advisers and their students can work with school counselors, behavior specialists, and psychologists to bring local statistics and needs to their administration. Consider holding a “Voices” assembly during which students are free to share their stories, or hold a mental health awareness week during which guest speakers or therapy dogs are brought into school.
  • Raise awareness outside of school. Join mental health walks. Contact local hospitals and community outreach organizations such as Lines for Life and the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Many nonprofit hospitals have funding to help community programs—this includes requests from schools. In addition, advocate in your state for more support and funding to support students and their mental health.