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New Youth Led-Study Finds Local Students Experiencing Significant Mental Health Challenges

[Image description: Members of our Antrim County Youth Advisory Council, some of whom are participating in our Youth Wellness Initiative.]

High school students across Antrim, Benzie, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska, and Leelanau Counties are experiencing significant mental wellness challenges today, according to a newly released youth-led study from the Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation’s Youth Wellness Initiative (YWI).

The Foundation’s YWI—coordinated by Dr. Ashley Drake and funded through a grant from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund—aims to better understand the mental health needs of high school youth across the region and to support movement on the Northwest Michigan Community Development Coalition’s Scorecard objective focused on improving youth mental health. The YWI has involved 14 high school students from across the five-county region as student researchers within a community-based participatory research framework.

This type of research approach is growing in popularity, according to Dr. Drake; it aims to shift power from the researcher to local community members thereby creating stronger partnerships with the individuals that are meant to benefit from the research and reducing inequities for marginalized or vulnerable research populations like youth.

“The fact that the Community Foundation made this participatory approach the basis of the Youth Wellness Initiative really shows how they are at the cutting edge of this kind of work and how they are centering the lived experience of local community members,” said Dr. Drake.

With guidance from market researcher, Woody Smith of Avenue ISR, YWI student researchers developed an anonymous survey to gather insights from their peers about their experiences with mental health challenges and supports. In total, 530 students from 20 different high schools across the five-county region responded to the youth wellness survey.

Following the students’ analysis of the survey results, key research findings included:

  1. High school students in northwest lower Michigan are experiencing significant mental wellness challenges today, including anxiety and depression.
  2. Many students, especially those experiencing anxiety and depression, do not have anyone they would feel comfortable talking to if they were feeling sad, anxious, or hopeless.
  3. Because mental health issues and ways of addressing them are not “normalized,” many students do not know how to address their mental health and are reluctant to seek help when they need it.
  4. Students would feel more comfortable talking to friends and family, rather than teachers and coaches, if they were feeling sad, anxious, or hopeless.
  5. Time spent outside in nature helps the vast majority of students to de-stress.
  6. Students in large numbers would use chill out rooms/spaces, opportunities to learn techniques to center and de-stress, more opportunities to talk to counselors or therapists, a school buddy system, and other approaches if they were feeling stressed out, anxious, or down.

Based on these findings, YWI student researchers developed a list of 11 recommendations for schools, policymakers, community leaders, and youth-focused organizations to consider. Recommendations are focused within three main categories:

  • Mental health education: School districts should begin mental health education in elementary and middle schools; schools should invite therapists or counselors to teach students specific emotional regulation and organization techniques.
  • Facilitating interactions: Schools should have counselors or therapists come into classrooms; counselors and teachers should make time to connect 1-on-1 with students and have the training to help them with mental health issues; schools should consider school “buddy systems” to connect students.
  • Using safe spaces and nature to alleviate stress: Schools should provide quiet “chill spaces” where students can decompress: teachers should incorporate the outdoors and possibly field trips as much as they can into course curricula.

“We commend each of the 14 student researchers who created this important mental health study, and appreciate the willingness of their peers to share their experiences through the YWI survey,” said David Mengebier, president and CEO of the Community Foundation. “We’re also grateful for the generous support of the Michigan Health Endowment Fund to make this study and initiative possible.”

The Community Foundation plans to share the YWI research results widely with their partners and use the findings to inform their grantmaking strategy, especially as it relates to youth-focused causes.

To access the full YWI report, including detailed recommendations from YWI student researchers, visit the Community Foundation’s website: https://www.gtrcf.org/priorities/youth-wellness-initiative.