On Wednesday, November 2nd, United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley, in collaboration with Resilient Lehigh Valley and Aevidum, a student-founded suicide awareness organization, held the area’s first-ever Youth Mental Health Summit sponsored by Lehigh County at Artsquest Center’s Musikfest Café. The summit united close to 250 students, mental-health advocates, and faculty advisors, representing 18 different high schools throughout the Greater Lehigh Valley area, to lift up youth voice in understanding the epidemic of depression and anxiety amongst our youth, collaborating on some strategies and solutions, and sharing helpful tips and advice on healthy ways to cope with emotions, support a friend and ask for help.
According to the Pennsylvania Youth Survey, 40% of Lehigh Valley teens reported being sad or depressed most days in the past 12 months, 15% had self-harmed, and 17% had suicidal ideation. Aevidum is a student-led school based program aiming to break the stigma surrounding depression, suicide, anxiety, and other mental health issues teens face. Their slogan, “I’ve got your back,” points to the importance of creating a school and peer culture that de-stigmatizes mental illness, promotes compassion and empathy, and ensures no student feels alone in their mental health struggles. To endorse their message, Aevidum members from several schools joined Mary Pritchard, their Director of Outreach and a retired school psychologist, and took the stage to discuss the importance of their organization and its impact on them individually since becoming members. After discussing her mental health battles and recovery journey, one first-year student from Nazareth High School said, “It’s okay to struggle with mental health, and we need to break the stigma that it’s not. That’s why I joined Aevidum.”
Dr. Georgia Bomgardner, Director of Community Education and Engagement with Shanthi Project and a licensed school psychologist, led a guided meditation demonstrating the power of deep breathing as a relaxation method. She then facilitated a conversation with a panel of students, the effects of toxic stress on the brain, the positive impact of breathwork on reducing cortisol levels, warning signs of depression and suicide, how to help a friend who’s struggling with their mental health as well as how to ask for help and where to turn for help. Before leaving the stage, Dr. Bomgardner demonstrated several coping techniques students can use to self-regulate their emotions as well as to counter negative self talk, including 5-Finger Breathing, Rainbow Grounding, Catch, Check, Change, and Opposite to Action.
Throughout the event hall, mental health nonprofits, including Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center, NAMI Lehigh Valley, Valley Youth House, Aevidum, and Center for Humanistic Change, had information tables and resources for students interested in learning more about issues that may affect them personally.
Students were broken into groups to discuss mental health and develop a list of concerns or statements to which they’d like to bring awareness. Event staff then passed a microphone, allowing students to share their discussion. Many students’ dialogue focused on their struggle when reaching out for help with their mental health. Some student attendees shared their positive experiences, proving that those around them care and are willing to help others in their darkest hour. “A positive experience that we all shared is our friends being there for us and making us feel like mental health is nothing to be ashamed of,” said one student.
Attendees also heard issues such as students feeling unheard, invalidated, or told that they were looking for attention. “It’s not an attention-seeking thing. We’re not doing this to get your attention; we’re doing this because it’s a real struggle. Just because someone else may be struggling more than another doesn’t mean that someone’s struggles are invalid,” said one student, speaking directly to adults and school administrative faculty.
This regional summit is just the start of a multi-event series focused on youth mental health being supported by United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley and Resilient Lehigh Valley. Beth Tomlinson, Senior Director of Community Resilience and co-founder of Resilient Lehigh Valley, shared that they will be taking the key messages highlighted by students at the summit to develop a peer to peer youth mental health social media campaign, collaborating with students at the Lehigh Valley Charter Arts High School to create the social media content. In addition, we will be facilitating follow-up focus groups with high school students to continue defining their recommendations for how schools, service providers, law enforcement and parents can better support their mental health needs and promote healing and resiliency, crafting their recommendations into a Youth Mental Health Community Call to Action advocacy plan that will be shared at our “Building Resilient Communities” Conference in June 2023.