Local Nonprofits Collaborate to Raise Student Voices on Mental Health

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Featured Image: Three students express their mental health experiences through dance.(Photo Credit: Social T Marketing & PR)

Students from high schools across the region gathered to kick off a fully student-run mental health awareness campaign.

Allentown, PA (May 24, 2023) – During this school year, Lehigh Valley high school students have been working together to speak up about mental health issues. The inaugural Lehigh Valley Youth Mental Health Summit in November 2022 started important conversations around mental health, resiliency, and stigma. Presented by United Way of Greater Lehigh Valley (UWGLV), Resilient Lehigh Valley (RLV), and Aevidum, and sponsored by Lehigh County, the event resulted in plans to create a peer-to-peer social media campaign to promote positive youth mental health and wellness messaging.

Photo Credit: Social T Marketing & PR

Our region is in the midst of a youth mental health crisis, where 43% of middle- and high-school-aged Lehigh Valley youth have reported feeling depressed most days over the past year, and 1 in 5 have contemplated suicide (20.2%) or are self-harming (19.8%), showing significant increases over the past 5 years. (Pennsylvania Youth Survey). UWGLV, RLV, Aevidum, and Lehigh County recognize this staggering statistic and have joined forces to facilitate the opportunity for students to share their stories and perspectives in an effort to destigmatize mental health, help struggling youth feel less alone, equip youth with effective tools and positive self-talk, and come together as a community using necessary funds provided by Lehigh County.

“Youth with poor mental health may struggle with their grades, friends and family relationships and engage in risky behaviors with sex, substance use or violence that impact their health and life outcomes,” says Beth Tomlinson, co-founder of RLV and senior director of community resilience at UWGLV. “Our children spend so much time on social media, which often has a damaging effect, making them feel more isolated, excluded, unhappy and insecure. At the Youth Mental Health Summit, the students were pretty clear that they wanted to use social media platforms to flip the script and intentionally add positive, affirming and supportive messaging to change the narrative. We are leaving it up to teens as mental health advocates to start conversations with their peers to create a positive impact, which is why we’re so excited about this youth voice social media campaign.”

Following up on the ideas generated at the Summit, the Aevidum Club of Lehigh Valley Charter High School for the Arts (Charter Arts) held a Mental Health 101 Workshop this spring. Georgia Bomgardner, Ph.D., director of community education and engagement for Shanthi Project, led messaging and content ideas discussions. Students were excited about an opportunity to contribute their voices and highlighted that adult-generated content often misses the mark when targeted toward teenagers. Overall, the workshop aimed to promote resilience-building and received positive feedback from the students.

Aevidum club students from Nazareth Area High School then gathered at Charter Arts to create social media content. They collaborated with students from Charter Arts to produce short videos that ranged from student interviews to dance. The students focused on being vulnerable and honest, sharing their authentic stories, developing positive mental health messaging, and hoping to foster a community of acceptance and comfort. The content will be shared this spring and summer on Tiktok and Instagram using #YouthSpeakUpLV, a hashtag suggested by the Freedom High School Aevidum Club.

“There is so much promise for this campaign, and while I’m happy to help, the students are the life of this movement,” says Dr. Bomgardner. “I hope that students feel empowered to share their voice in a creative and authentic way and, in doing so, break down barriers for others. I also hope there is growth. Growth for the students who feel more confident and connected, growth for those who care to listen and learn from young people, and growth for our community and beyond as we work to break down the stigma associated with mental health. Our youth have a lot to say, and we must take the time to listen.”

Aevidum Clubs continue to grow in the Lehigh Valley and nationally. The clubs, in middle and high schools as well as colleges, lifts student voice, empowering them to advocate for change in their school and peer communities, end the stigma associated with mental illness and encourage help-seeking behaviors. RLV recently secured multiple stipends through Lehigh and Northampton County’s Department of Human Services to financially support schools with establishing or supporting an existing Aevidum program or comparable peer mental health support group.

A peer-to-parent social media messaging campaign will follow upon completion of this project with continued support from area teens. Funding for this project was provided by Lehigh County Department of Human Services. Plans are currently in the works for a second Youth Mental Health Summit to be held again this fall.

About United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley

United Way fights for the health, safety and education of every person in the Greater Lehigh Valley and envisions communities where every person belongs and every person thrives. We strive to achieve this goal by assessing community needs, raising funds, investing in solutions and mobilizing our community to action. For more information, visit www.UnitedWayGLV.org

About Resilient Lehigh Valley

Resilient Lehigh Valley is a cross-sector, collective-impact effort dedicated to increasing youth resiliency through creating a trauma-informed and resilient community. To date, Resilient Lehigh Valley has trained more than 4,000 educators, health-and-human service professionals and law-enforcement members in trauma-informed practices and secured commitment to taking a trauma-informed school approach with 7 out of the region’s 17 school districts. To learn more, visit www.resilientlehighvalley.org.

About Aevidum

Aevidum was started in Cocalico High School in Lancaster County in 2003 after a sophomore student died by suicide. After his death, students, teachers, and administrators refused to remain silent and began an important conversation about mental health and suicide prevention. Aevidum was incorporated as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization in 2010 and has since grown to over 300 clubs in elementary, middle, and high schools as well as colleges throughout Pennsylvania and beyond. Aevidum is different because it lifts student voices, empowers them to advocate for change in their home communities, ends the stigma associated with mental illness, and encourages help-seeking behaviors. Aevidum creates cultures of care by promoting inclusive practices of acceptance, appreciation, acknowledgment, and caring for others via student-created campaigns. Aevidum’s message of hope has been shared widely, and hundreds of thousands of individuals have pledged commitment to Aevidum’s mission and message. We hope you will join the movement and help us spread the word. We’ve got your back! www.Aevidum.com

About Shanthi Project

Shanthi Project is a 501(c)(3) education nonprofit providing evidence-based mindfulness services to more than 4,000 children and adults annually across the Greater Lehigh Valley. Committed for more than a decade to education and advocacy, we are an established agency in the Trauma-Informed Education Movement, and the local authority on building resilience in an increasingly complex 21st-century world.

We offer the benefits of mindfulness, which increase mind-body self-awareness, reduce stress and improve focus. Our work promotes positive emotions that help others learn important skills to establish, or re-establish, healthier and more productive relationships at home, school, work, and within their communities.

Information provided to TVL by:
Grace Doule