Voices of Youth: Washtenaw County youth seek authentic, trustworthy conversations on mental health

This article is part of Concentrate's Voices of Youth series, which features content created by Washtenaw County youth in partnership with Concentrate mentors, as well as feature stories by adult writers that examine issues of importance to local youth. In this installment, Concentrate staffer Eric Gallippo examines what mental health resources local young people need – an issue of importance raised in our listening sessions with local youth.

For young people facing anxiety, depression, and other mental health struggles, finding the right words to unpack what's going on can be a challenge in itself. The same goes for peers and friends who are trying to help or understand them. 

Local youth from the theater troupe at Ypsilanti's Corner Health Center have been exploring these issues through a short, three-person play called "This is Real." Over the course of the 10-minute show, audience members hear the perspective of a high school student who is struggling with depression, a friend who doesn't quite know how to help, and a dismissive classmate. 

Ypsi resident Noelle Bellard, 18, plays the lead role of Mary. She says she not only found her character relatable, but also gained a new perspective about how other people might view her.

Noelle Bellard.
"She never outright said she was depressed until she got diagnosed with it, because she didn't really know what was happening with her, and that's kind of how I felt before," Bellard says. "It's like, 'Well, something feels wrong, but I'm not exactly sure why. And, you know, I shouldn't feel this way, but I do.'"

Corner Health's theater troupe is based partly in performance and partly in health education. Leading up to the show, Corner Health staff worked with students about not only playing their parts but also identifying what depression and anxiety look like, how prevalent they are in the community, and how they are treated through therapy and medication. When it comes to anxiety, Corner Health Center Health Educator Riley Annear says the group also talked about managing stress and building self-esteem, based on requests from the youth.

The Corner Health Center theater troupe rehearses "This Is Real," a short play about mental health.
Troupe member Dalon Brown, of Ypsilanti, says youth need a more open dialogue about mental health, greater access to therapy, and more trustworthy mental health information on social media.

Starting the conversation

After spending the last year listening to Washtenaw County youth and their adult advocates talk about mental health needs, Elsie Serrano says a few main topics kept coming up: finding resources, curbing misinformation, promoting healthy dialogue, and the stress and isolation caused by COVID-19.

Serrano joined the Washtenaw County Health Department as communications coordinator in January 2022. She leads the department's #wishyouknew campaign, which was established in 2019 to promote honest conversations between youth and adults — and to help demystify and destigmatize mental health issues. Serrano says the effort was paused early in the pandemic before starting back up in early 2022.

Informed by interviews with community partners including Corner Health's Youth Leadership Council and Saint Mary's Student Parish in Ann Arbor, as well as individual online interviews, Serrano hopes to refocus the campaign's message now to amplify issues that matter most to youth today. She also wants to spotlight resources that are available through organizations like the National Alliance on Mental Illness, TRAILS to Wellness, and Corner Health.

"One of the main goals of the campaign was to spark these conversations around mental health between young people and their trusted adults," Serrano says. "That's something that I hope to continue, but I would also like to offer resources on how to have these conversations. So not only [to say], 'You should have these conversations,' but what ... does a supportive conversation look and sound like?"

As young people become more open to talking about mental health — with adults and peers, online and in real life — Serrano says it's important to remember these are serious issues, and that anyone who feels like they are struggling should seek professional help.

"There are these buzzwords around mental health and there's a lot of information being shared around mental health, especially on TikTok and Instagram and on social media," Serrano says. She hopes #wishyouknew can help with "picking through that and seeing what's accurate and what's not."

Working together

To help address growing needs for mental health support, Ann Arbor's Scarlett Middle School recently piloted a new anxiety and stress management program in partnership with Eastern Michigan University (EMU). Working with counseling graduate students from EMU, small groups of Scarlett students met weekly last fall to build community, learn coping skills, develop self-confidence, and better understand how to manage the stresses of life and school.

Sixth-grade counselor Bianca Humphries helped develop and lead the program, which was offered to sixth- and seventh-grade students who had expressed anxiety issues and were not already receiving some other type of in-school support.

"One of the benefits of group work is that students are able to become a leader themselves, so you have that emotional boost of not just receiving [help], but being able to offer it," Humphries says.

Over the five weeks, students and their EMU group leaders worked through exercises to help them identify the differences between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors — and the relationship between them — as well as ways to disrupt negative thoughts by working through them and using different breathing techniques.

"By the last meeting, it was definitely like the kids were coming out of their shells. They were laughing, they were sharing, and it was really, really cool to see," Humphries says.

One particularly withdrawn student's parent made a point of checking in, because they hadn't heard as many concerns from teachers as they had before the group started. When Humphries and the parent realized the group seemed to be making a difference, the parent also shared that she had recently noticed the student using one of the tools from the group while the student was feeling anxious in the car.

"This was a kid whose hood was up, whose mask was on, and who sort of sat in the circle, but a little bit out of it, and I had no idea they were actually taking anything in," Humphries says. "That was really encouraging to hear, these ways in which they did want to be there and they did want to take part."

Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.

All photos by Doug Coombe.

To learn more about Concentrate's Voices of Youth project and read other installments in the series, click here.
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