By Hillary Boles
National Board-Certified Teacher

Be Strong’s a mental health movement for youth.

To most, the statistics in the newly released 2021 CDC Youth Risk Behavior Survey are staggering. Nearly 60 percent of teenage girls persistently feel sad and hopeless, while 35 percent made a suicide plan. Self-harm, dating violence, forced sex are now more common than not in our teenagers. The recent data is enough to spur a call to action. The Tommy Raskin Memorial Fund for People and Animals said, “The news of lots of teenaged girls feeling depressed and considering suicide must be a call to action for the whole country. We need to address the youth mental health crisis and also the harsh and violent social conditions that are making life miserable for a lot of people.”

For me, a teacher of high school juniors and seniors, the data is not shocking. Many of my students talk candidly about their trauma, while others I am able to piece together. I have a student who asks to be supervised during lunch to control her disordered eating, another who has to go to the restroom with a friend so that she doesn’t self-harm. I have had two girls who were trafficked as young children and many who were temporarily placed in mental health facilities. More than half of my students miss school every day and cite mental health as their primary reason.

Anyone who works with young people is certainly guilty of comparing these teenagers to those of other generations. Many blame the pandemic, socioeconomic situations, or social media for mental health issues in young people now. I certainly don’t have a singular cause, but maybe a common one–a loss of connection. Teenagers are simply not as connected to adults, peers, or their communities as those in the past. Because students spend the majority of their days at school, it has become increasingly common to place social workers, mental health counselors, and behavior specialists in schools where there was once only a guidance counselor. While this is a step in the right direction, not every student feels comfortable utilizing these resources and with nationwide teacher shortages, oftentimes these support personnel are often used to fill in as substitutes.

Last Friday, three-quarters of the way through her senior year, I got a new student. I asked her to fill out a “get-to-know-you” form for me, where I ask students, “What outside of school impacts the inside of school?” She wrote that she was a foster kid, had been to several different high schools already including an in-patient mental health facility, and needed one final credit to graduate. I certainly worry about her sense of connection. Will she make friends in these last few months of her public-school career? Will she build trust with me in that short amount of time? Will she open up to a counselor?

I was fortunate to be able to give her a quick tool while we work through those connections. I asked her to download the Be Strong app, a one-stop-shop for at-risk youth. Here she can get immediately in touch with a crisis counselor, report dating abuse or sexual assault, get emergency help with suicide or drug overdose. Additionally, she can connect with peers locally and nationally and find community resources, such as access to food, healthcare, or social services. More than 100 youth download the app every day.

As powerful as the Be Strong app is, the full mission of the organization is for teenagers to build dependency on each other for good. Be Strong has 4,088 student representatives nationwide. One-half of the counties in the US has a student representative. Be Strong’s mission is to have a representative and peer group in every middle and high school in the US.

Anne Petraro, a mother of a Be Strong student representative, sees the impact of the program on her son. She said, “Since Joe has become part of the Be Strong Community, his emotional health, confidence and well-being has all improved. While helping others talk openly about emotions and all the great things he learns in the Be Strong trainings, it also helps him. This peer-based method is something my husband and I have seen first-hand work within our communities.”

Many of the adults in young lives are simply stretched too thin to give the kind of care they need. Students are seeing their parents balance multiple jobs and their teachers leave the profession. At one point this year, our guidance counselor had more than 70 students who had requested to see her on a single day. Building youth to become advocates for each other is a life-changing approach to this crisis, as more than 60 percent of youth are more willing to talk to a peer over an adult about challenges they face.

Dr. Pamela Morris-Perez, professor of applied psychology at NYU and Be Strong advisory board member, notes that “Be Strong’s highly innovative peer-to-peer approach builds squarely on the science of adolescent development. By putting resources directly into the hands of youth, Be Strong is preventing problems from escalating, ensuring that young people are accessing the help they need to thrive.”

I encourage all stakeholders–parents, teachers, school administrators, students–to download the Be Strong App and consider donating to the organization. Each donation will be matched up to $50,000 in the month of February.

Give with confidence: Donate Here

About Be Strong
Be Strong’s mission is to save and improve the lives of our youth using a peer-to-peer approach to strengthen mental, emotional, and relational health, build resilience, and prevent bullying.

Additional information on Be Strong events and initiatives is available at Be Strong is a 501(c)3 and all donations are 100% tax-deductible.

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