Mini-grants help Washtenaw County students lead school mental health awareness initiatives

Thanks to the county's mental health millage, over 20 middle and high schools have applied for and received mini-grants of up to $5,000 to implement mental health programs for their school communities.
This article is part of a series about mental health in Washtenaw County. It is made possible with funding from Washtenaw County's Public Safety and Mental Health Preservation Millage.

"It's not weak to speak." 

That's the slogan that students at the Ypsilanti Township-based Achieving College and Career Education (ACCE) program coined in 2021 to recognize the importance of discussing mental health. They and numerous other students across Washtenaw County are now taking an active role in designing their own mental health awareness programming, thanks to school mental health mini-grant funding established as a result of the Washtenaw County Public Safety and Mental Health Preservation Millage.

Since the millage's passage in 2017, over 20 middle and high schools in Washtenaw County have applied for and received mini-grants of up to $5,000 to implement mental health programs for their school communities. In 2020, nearly $290,000 of mental health millage funding went towards youth supports, with almost $60,000 of that allocation going towards the mini-grant program. 

ACCE students had noted that mental health has been a sort of taboo to discuss openly, at least until recent years. Many male students, for example, were experiencing stress or rage issues, and students wanted to create a healthy, physical outlet to release those negative emotions. Thanks to a mini-grant, students were able to write a proposal to build a weight room for students to use both in their physical education classes, as well as outside of class, to release their stress and anger in a healthy, safe way. 
'Why You Matter" campaign photos in the hallways of Lincoln Middle School in Augusta Township.
Equipment was ordered in the winter of 2021, and the weight room opened in spring this year. Lauren Fardig-Diop, the culture and climate coach at ACCE, says she and other ACCE faculty "felt like it was Christmas all over again."

In addition to the new weight room, ACCE also implemented mental health days, on which all classes are canceled for the day. The school also introduced activities and programs to help students and faculty de-stress and discuss mental health issues their school community may be facing. 

"We've had some amazing conversations with young people, who never realized that their mental health affected their performance in school," says Fardig-Diop, whose role as culture and climate coach put her in a position to provide guidance to students as they took charge in deciding how to utilize their mini-grant. "We have had students who are very open about their experiences provide support to others who have similar diagnoses. There's always student support staff, but the messaging is always so much different when it comes from someone their age."

Another school that took advantage of the mini-grant program was Lincoln Middle School (LMS) in Augusta Township. Rebekah Ward, a counselor at LMS, says students wanted to approach mental health discussions by expanding the "Why You Matter" campaign, which was started by the nearby Chelsea School District. The campaign involves taking photos of students holding up a whiteboard that displays their responses to the prompt "I matter because ..." The photos are then posted on school walls. Ward says the mini-grant helped LMS cover the cost of whiteboards, markers, and printing for the project.
Teacher Kim Atkins and counselor Rebekah Ward at Lincoln Middle School.
Ward says many students initially didn't know what to write on their whiteboards, or felt it was difficult to open up about a vulnerable topic. Now, after nearly four years of the campaign, students look forward to seeing the photos of themselves and their peers up on the walls of their school. 

"They're more introspective than they were before," Ward says. "It's helped them to see that other people may matter for the same reasons you do. Our grades don't necessarily intermingle that much, but a sixth-grader might see an eighth-grader that has the same interests or beliefs as them, and see that there are connections throughout the building that they can make, that they aren't alone."

Andrea Collins worked at Saline Middle School when that school received its mini-grant. She used mini-grant funds to help organize and launch a Black Student Union (BSU), with the goal of creating "a social community of support for Black students to share issues they may have faced in school."

"Initially, I was running the group voluntarily," Collins says. "The mini-grant helped significantly with support for the group. I was providing food for every meeting, I wanted guest speakers to come in, and it was getting expensive." 

Along with meetings every other Monday after school, the Saline BSU also used funds from the mini-grant to create three permanent visual installations in the school: two featuring inspirational quotes voted on by students, and one featuring BSU student members. 
A visual installation at Saline Middle School, funded by a mini-grant.
"I think that the permanent visual installation also helps students feel represented and seen in their school community," Collins says. "These learning opportunities are so important for these students, and if it weren't for the funds from the mini-grant, I may not have been able to provide that experience to these students."

Resources from the millage, including the mini-grants used by ACCE, LMS, and Saline Middle, will continue to be available to the community until 2024, when voters will decide whether the millage is renewed. Gregory Powers, who manages communications efforts for Washtenaw County Community Mental Health and the Washtenaw Health Initiative, says the millage has had an incredible impact on mental health in schools as well as in the greater Washtenaw County area.

"Because of COVID we've seen an increased need for mental health support for kids," he says. "... Normalizing mental health, talking about it, making it very visible, it's letting kids and families know it isn't this taboo subject."

Rylee Barnsdale is a Michigan native and longtime Washtenaw County resident. She wants to use her journalistic experience from her time at Eastern Michigan University writing for the Eastern Echo to tell the stories of Washtenaw County residents that need to be heard.

All photos by Doug Coombe except Saline Middle School photo courtesy of Saline Middle School.