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How one public health alum is helping teens open up by writing it down

Colorado School of Public Health

YAB members, Children's Hospital, 2016
Mental health problems are common in America. While one in five people will experience a mental health problem in any given year, one in 10 of America’s youth will experience a period of major depression ( 

Heather Kennedy, MPH ’10, an alum of the Colorado School of Public Health at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, is passionate about mental health, and as such, was part of the team that created a local youth action board to raise awareness and improve services for mental health.
Made up of a dozen youth ages 15 to 17 from high schools in the Denver metro area, Heather created the structure for a Mental Health Youth Action Board (YAB) after being tasked with creating an “advisory” youth board for the Pediatric Mental Health Institute at Children’s Hospital Colorado in 2013. The group’s focus is on improving mental health services and de-stigmatizing mental health issues especially among teens.
“Mental health stigma pervades every part of our community, which makes it more difficult for people to get the care they need,” explains Heather. “Teens experience a great deal of stress in high school. They already support their friends who are struggling, yet most people aren’t engaging teens as part of a mutli-faceted solution. I believe it’s important that youth should have a say in every program, policy and practice that impacts their lives. When faced with mental health issues, teens often say, ‘we don’t know how to help a friend, when to get help, or how to get help’—we created YAB so that teens can be, and are, the first responders in their friends’ mental health problems, and now they are on the frontlines with other caring adults, reducing mental health stigma.”
Whether through their own experiences or those whom they’re close to, each youth action board member has had some point of contact with mental health issues. Sparked by these diverse points of view, they wrote 31, six word stories—one for each day in May, which is Mental Health Awareness Month.
The stories resulted in an interactive exhibit that displays the youths’ stories as book covers and encourages others to contribute their own six-word stories or memoirs. The “Mental Health is All Our Stories” exhibit was featured at the 2016 TEDx Mile High Make+Believe event in Denver, and the story images are also available on Pinterest or Facebook.
Heather explained the purpose of the exhibit and art piece is to raise awareness and normalize mental health issues by starting conversations that encourage teens (and adults) to take mental health personally. Some examples of the exhibit’s stories include:
An Oscar winning performance: “I’m fine.”
Sharing silence can speak very loudly.
There is no normal. Let go.
"This group has given me the strength to share my story, one I previously was ashamed of,” said Kelsey, one youth board member. “They taught me to view it differently, and now I share it with pride, as a stronger, healthier person and hope to inspire others to do the same.” 

Each year, the youth board members are offered Youth Mental Health First Aid training and plan and implement a large social action project like this year’s exhibit. Past YAB projects have included a traveling photo exhibit titled “Illuminate the Darkness” and a video called “The LISTEN Project.” Each project serves as a conversation starter about how mental health is a human issue that begins with dialogue, connectedness, authenticity and compassion.

Training teens to talk about and recognize mental health concerns is vital,” added Heather. “Before and during my MPH, I worked for a youth empowerment movement called Get R!EAL, Colorado’s youth movement against the tobacco industry. I was a youth in the Get R!EAL movement, so I know firsthand the importance of engaging teens in areas that matter to them.”

Since its inception in 2013, the Youth Action Board has had 26 total members representing 18 schools, in eight school districts. The group is led by Tony Edelblute, LPC, MT-BC, a music therapist in the hospital’s Ponzio Creative Arts Therapy Program, the program where Heather initially worked after earning her Master’s in Public Health in 2010.

Heather credits both the “research methods” and “program planning and implementation” courses in her MPH program as those that she uses the most in her research and evaluation work. Since she graduated from ColoradoSPH in 2010, she’s published five peer-reviewed articles about complementary and alternative medicine integration into pediatric psychiatric hospital settings. Heather is currently in a PhD program at the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work.

When asked about the source of her passion in mental health, Heather shared that her mother died from complications of tobacco addiction, anorexia and bipolar disorder when she was 15. This led to her initial work in Get R!EAL as a youth, as well as her current work in mental health with area youth.

“This work with YAB has really been an accumulation of all of my experience,” she said. 

The Youth Action Board is now accepting applications for the 2016-2017 Board Year. YAB will recruit up to 11 passionate youth from across the Denver Metro Area, ages 15-17, to participate as members and improve mental health in Colorado. Applications are due by 5 pm on Sept. 16, 2016. Contact Heather at​ for the application form. 

Find resources for understanding your teen’s mental health, and learn more about Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Children’s Colorado.
If you or someone you know is in crisis and need immediate support, please call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or the Colorado Crisis & Support Line at 1-844-493-TALK (8255). You’ll be connected to a skilled, trained counselor at a crisis center in your area, anytime 24/7.

Children's Hospital Colorado contributed to this story. 

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