As an advocate for teen mental health, JJ Riddell believes in breaking silences.
“For a long time, many viewed mental health as a more personal thing that you shouldn’t talk about, but just deal with,” said the high school senior from Redmond, Oregon. “But, our generation is bringing the topic into more conversations and more actively seeking help.”
Riddell is a member of the Be Well Student Advisory Board, a project of Well Being Trust and Providence St. Joseph Health through which Oregon student leaders promote awareness of behavioral health issues and advocate for policies that benefit their peers. He’s also lost a friend to suicide.
“It was a very hard thing to go through,” he said. “Students at my school felt a great loss that flooded throughout the community.” Students and parents at Riddell’s school, Redmond High School, responded by filming “Your Life Matters,” a video about the challenges people throughout a school and community face every day. But, Riddell said, “The school could have provided more help and resources to the students.”
With U.S. teens naming anxiety and depression as top problems for them and their peers — more so than bullying, drugs and alcohol, or poverty — students and adults who work with them are calling for change. So, as Providence St. Joseph Health and Well Being Trust look for ways to better the mental health and well-being of young people, they’re including student leaders and schools in the solution.
With a strong conviction that schools and society at large should prioritize students’ mental and emotional well-being, Riddell and other members of the Be Well advisory board are building momentum among students and educators to create change. The advisory board helped shape a “Be Well” radio campaign to initiate dialogue around mental well-being and successfully advocated for Oregon legislation that allows students to take sick days for mental health.
They also created a podcast, Talk2BeWell, that addresses issues teens care about such as healthy relationships and gun violence prevention. And earlier this year, they hosted a conversation among Oregon school administrators, student councils and M. Justin Coffey, MD, pioneering member of the Zero Suicides Initiative, about how suicide impacts everyone in the community.
Developed at Henry Ford Health System, in Detroit, the Zero Suicide approach maintains that suicide can be prevented and even eliminated when certain elements are in place.
The advisory boards’ efforts, said Dr. Robin Henderson, chief executive of behavioral health at Providence Oregon and Providence St. Joseph Health’s clinical liaison to the Well Being Trust, are “opening up the conversation about adolescent mental health and emotional well-being.”
Students can take action in their own lives, too, Riddell said. “I think students can keep aware of themselves and the people around them. To always make sure they understand how they are feeling and if it’s healthy.”
Because schools are where students spend most of their time — and build, grow, and maintain many important social relationships — they are essential partners in boosting a culture of well-being among young people. Riddell said to help more students facing behavioral health issues, it’s important to “break the divide” between them and teachers so that everyone can communicate openly.
“Schools can start the conversations with their students, letting students know that the school is a resource,” he said. “I also believe that schools should implement a mental health curriculum so students can be educated on the topic.”
Coffey said schools or districts that want to take a “zero suicide approach,” with the goal of having no suicides among members of their community, must embrace a certain philosophy.
“The foundational prerequisite is a conviction that eliminating suicides is possible,” he said. “You have to make sure—from a leadership perspective—that your team holds that conviction.”
The next layer is what Coffey calls a “just culture” that provides support without judgement. “If people are fearful that if they miss the target of an audacious goal, like eliminating suicide, that they are going to be in trouble, you’re never going to achieve the goal.”
Kelly Beaudry, special programs administrator at Oregon’s Lincoln County School District, was among the school staff who attended the conversation with Coffey. She said her district is working to adopt a more systematic and proactive approach to promoting its students’ mental well-being.
“We already have a suicide prevention protocol,” Beaudry said. “Now, we’re looking at ‘How does student well-being prevention fit into our K-12 curriculum?’ We want to be able to have this be a core part of our counseling program.”
She is also working with other institutions in the community, such as a crisis hotline and behavioral health providers, to align their protocols so that students receive the same help no matter who they turn to. In the same vein, Beaudry envisions the counseling staff training teachers and other staff down the road, so everyone who works for the school district is equipped to guide students toward better mental health and well-being.
Meeting children’s mental health needs is a goal the entire nation should embrace, Henderson said. “If we can help students care for themselves now, we will build a generation of adults able to care for their own mental health and well-being—and that of their children and grandchildren down the line, creating lasting benefits.”