The mental health of our kids has gotten a lot of attention lately – and rightly so. Even the US Surgeon General issued a Youth Mental Health Advisory last year calling on Americans from all walks of life to step in – and step up – to help young people.
Tuesday the Good Works Lab in Traverse City launched its own initiative: We Fight for Northern Michigan’s Youth Mental Health, or “We Fight.” Will Unger is with the Good Works Lab Youth Action Team. He says, “As there’s more awareness, it’s more normalized, so to speak.”
They’re the organizers behind “Elevate Northern Michigan: A Youth Mental Health Summit for Young Leaders—and Those Who Love Them.” The summit brings people together to address the challenges that our youngest generation are facing. High School Science Teacher Ian McGurn was among those in attendance. “It makes me excited for the future. Being able to sit face to face with people who care.”
Rebekah TenBrink is the Founder and Executive Director of the LIFT Teen Center Suttons Bay, and was one of the summit’s presenting speakers. “It’s so good to see that there are so many people invested in our youth. And want to help, want to show up, want to be part of the change for them.”
The packed house in a classroom at NMC’s Innovation Hall was a good sight to see for Will Unger. “It’s very cool to see a room full of people who care about me and my fellow classmates.” The high school senior says it’s great to see so many people who care, coming together. “It’s really cool to see how collectively as a community and this larger society we’re all becoming more educated on these issues. And I truly believe education is that beginning, that starting point. To where we can build off of to create that systemic change. That’s how we’re really going to tackle this issue.”
For Will Unger, it’s personal. “I’m here because I want to make a difference. I lost a couple friends to suicide a couple years ago. That was kind of eye-opening for me. And I don’t want any more of my friends to end up like they did. Whatever I can do to make sure no one reaches that point.”
TenBrink says, “It’s so important to feel like you’re seen in a community. And heard and loved. And we talked about that, how to make others feel connected and included.” She says these conversations need to keep happening. “This is the work we do, working with teens. And it’s such a needed topic to be discussing in our community.” She adds, “There’s always been a need for connection and a place to belong. Our teens are really feeling that impact having been cut off and isolated. And having technology as that one thing to stay connected.”
In just a few weeks students will be back in class. And those attending the summit here say it’s a great opportunity to talk about the importance of youth mental health. It’s also a great opportunity for those in the schools to gain some first-hand knowledge of the struggles those kids are facing. “It starts on the first day and the first week of school. That’s a crucial time,” McGurn says. “The state of mental health for our kids is just to the point where there’s too many fires to be put out in any one given day. There’s too many holes in the dam that we’re having trouble plugging them all.”
McGurn says the toll on their mental health is sometimes easy to see, other times it takes longer. But there’s also the impact on their education. “As a teacher it takes away from my ability to teach, right? My ability to get content across or skills across because the kids sitting in the seats are having a hard time dealing with all the other things that are weighing heavily on their mind.”
As much as students may say they don’t want to be back in school, for many of them it’s a much needed connection to friends and support systems. TenBrink says, “The joy and the smiles that result from gathering together, being a part of something. You can’t put a price tag on that.”
Mental health has gained a lot of attention in recent years. If there’s a silver lining, it’s that all the talking seems to be working. Unger says, “I’ve found that it’s easier to talk to my friends about it. I’ve had conversations with teachers and principals… and my classmates about this issue. And how precious it is. And the general consensus is it really does affect everyone in at least a small way.”
The Good Works Lab and “We Fight” hope to make Elevate Northern Michigan a quarterly summit series focusing on boosting knowledge regarding neuroscience, practical tools, and leadership skills related to youth mental health.