Teens leading mental health conversation aim to reach every high school
Lauren Edgeworth was 15 when COVID-19-related school closures and quarantine interrupted her routine of school, friends and volleyball.
Loneliness soon set in. But she quickly learned to not underestimate the power of going for a walk.
“I was so used to playing volleyball three times a day, for more than half of my life, so when we got locked down, I stopped being active,” she said. “Personally, I always need to stay active. And that's my way of coping if I'm ever feeling overwhelmed or stressed.”
Now she’s 17, starting her senior year at Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas and bracing herself for the stressful year ahead.
For the past two years, Edgeworth has been a member and co-chair of the Hope Means Nevada Teen Committee, the group advocates for teen mental health resources and spreading awareness, as well as connecting teens across the state and building a peer-to-peer network of support.
The teen committee started with Edgeworth, her older sister and a few of their friends, which has now grown to more than 200 teens across the state, she said. The committee is calling on high schoolers to join and be part of the committee to represent their school. The group’s goal is to keep expanding and create a presence in every high school, which would help the organization understand each school’s culture and tailor the resource material accordingly.
“I think once one person opens up, everyone else begins to realize that ‘Oh, the thoughts that I'm having aren't just me,’” Edgeworth said. “There's been such a big stigma around the conversation of mental health, and for so many years … Our main thing is opening up ourselves in order for other people to be able to open up about their stories, too.”
Hope Means Nevada launched in April 2020 as a community-based movement, in collaboration with the Nevada Medical Center and advertising agency R&R Partners, with the goal of becoming a resource hub where people can find mental health providers.
Mary Ann Mele, who co-chairs Hope Means Nevada, called it “divine intervention” as the organization’s launch came right as COVID-19 took over people’s lives. Mele’s drive for Hope Means Nevada was fueled by her experience with her children’s mental health and family history of suicide.
“It has been our focus to reach teens directly,” Mele said about the creation of Hope Means Nevada. “And this amazing group that Lauren and her sister brought together is our most powerful tool, because it is no secret that kids listen to each other first.”
A newer member of the teen committee, Matthew Yi, said he’s already on the lookout for any of his peers at Coronado High School who might be overwhelmed with senior year pressures, on top of family and relationship issues.
“Senior year, it’s college application season … I know a bunch of my friends will be stressed out trying to get that done,” he said. “I just saw I could be part of the community and kind of help in some way.”
Last year, the committee pushed for the legislative passage of SB249, which allows for up to three mental health days per school year for Nevada students and mandates that a suicide hotline number be printed on all student I.D. cards. Suicide is the leading cause of death for 12- to 19-year-olds in the state, according to the Nevada Coalition for Suicide Prevention.
“And just as you would take a sick day, now you can take a break for your mental health,” Edgeworth said. “It was such a stressful transition going back to school … We had started getting used to the online classes, so going in person I noticed that a ton of my friends were stressed out, too, and we don't really have a way to take a break during the in-person school day.”
1 in 3 teens considered suicide
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, 1 in 3 teens considered taking their own life in 2020. In Clark County, the increased student suicide rate during the COVID-19 pandemic created a sense of urgency among school district officials to reopen schools and raise awareness of resources available.
“COVID-19 really challenged a lot of us … Every age group faced a plethora of challenges and adversity during these last two years,” said Ivet Aldaba, professor at the UNLV School of Social Work. “And it really made us re-evaluate what we're doing, how we're handling, and I think the importance of being adaptable.”
Nevada ranked among the worst states in a recent report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, for overall child well-being, economic well-being, education and family and community.
Aldaba attributed youth’s struggle with mental health to connectedness to friends and peers. During school shutdowns in 2020, many students lost their only social outlets, she said.
“I think with COVID-19, we definitely saw a shift happening — kids and teens were spending more time at home, not having that social outlet to be able to address, whether it was anxiety
or depression,” Aldaba said. “The lack of socialization and not being able to connect with their peers really impacted them.”
Edgeworth said that during online learning she missed having the face-to-face conversations and discussions in classes, and it was discouraging seeing her classmates on the screen with their cameras off and not interacting.
A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted in the first half of 2021 found that nearly 1 in 5 Hispanic high school students seriously considered suicide and nearly half reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness.
“Mental health continues to be a stigma in the Latino community,” Aldaba said. “If the parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles are not talking about it, or continue to not address mental health — saying ‘you're just crazy,’ or ‘we don’t talk about that,’ we internalize our feelings, our emotions, thoughts — then that gets perpetuated to younger generations.”
And while social media allowed teens to connect and communicate with each other, it also became a double-edged sword by perpetuating bullying, spurring body image and self-esteem issues through unrealistic imagery and eliminating a safe space as the easily accessible platforms blend social and home life, Aldaba said.
“But then what we saw because of the internet, and because of a lot of young people having access to the internet and these different sites, is that that bullying continued online,” she said. “Peers were sending messages, spreading videos, pictures. So that bullying continued even in their home environment, where a lot of our young people see their home as a safe space.”
As the conversation around mental health continues, especially among youth, stigma begins to break down — “name it to tame it,” Mele said.
Aldaba advises parents to pay attention to what their children are up to and start those conversations about mental health, stress and emotions.
“You're entering a new grade, new teachers, new students — it's a transition. With that transition they are going to feel a sense of anxiety,” Aldaba said. “So talk about what that anxiety looks like and then let's talk about what you can do to cope with that.”
Resources to help are becoming more accessible. In mid-July, Nevada joined the rest of the country in adopting the simpler 988 number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. People can call and text when experiencing a mental health crisis and be connected with a trained counselor who will provide support and resources.
Just this week, Hope Means Nevada and SilverSummit Healthplan, a Medicaid managed care organization, launched a $1.5 million campaign to spread the word about free resources available to teens and young adults. The Nevada Suicide Prevention Campaign includes advertisements in English and Spanish, aimed at young people and parents, on TV, newspapers, radio, social media, and billboards, which will run through the end of October. The donation will also finance a non-urgent support hotline that can be reached by a phone call or text, to supplement the 988 crisis support lifeline.
As part of the campaign, Summit Behavioral Health Services is also offering free mental health care and case management support at their clinics so youth can seek services at a physical location in Reno and Las Vegas, without needing to be a member or have insurance.
Gov. Steve Sisolak also announced during the campaign’s press conference that he will propose to the Legislature to invest nearly $50 million for youth mental health services, including counseling and support by phone and in-person.
Edgeworth leaned on her friends when she needed them most, and now she reminds her peers that they are not alone.
“There's always someone who loves you, there's always someone you can reach out to,” Edgeworth said. “And what I've learned myself over these past couple years, is that I don't have to do everything on my own.”