Some people don’t realize the importance of good mental health until later in life, if at all. Local teens active in the Community Health Awareness Council are prioritizing it in their lives. And it’s already paying off.

“Mental health is super important – if you’re not at peace with yourself, it’s hard to do anything else,” said Riley, a St. Francis High School junior who is a member of CHAC’s Teen Advisory Council.

Riley and other members discussed during a May 12 workshop how embracing the tools of mental wellness helped them deal with challenges ranging from managing busy schedules to coping with the pandemic.

In recognition of May as Mental Health Awareness Month, CHAC offered four weekly online workshops under the theme “Unlocking Your Inner Strengths with CHAC.” Held each Wednesday, the workshops covered various topics. For the first, May 5, CHAC clinicians highlighted techniques used to connect with clients remotely during the pandemic. The May 12 event, “Self-Empowerment Through Expression,” featured nine Teen Advisory Council members talking about how they use mental health skills in their lives and the need for future leaders to prioritize it. The teen council returned May 19 for a workshop on better understanding between parents and teens, titled “Parenting Teens Doesn’t Have to be Painful!” The final event, scheduled 6:30 p.m. today, will feature a panel discussion on “Self-Care & Support Across Diverse Communities.”

Advocates for Mental Health

CHAC leaders tout the benefits of the Teen Advisory Council, an idea that came from a Homestead High School student who reached out to CHAC after she co-founded a mental health awareness club on her campus.

According to Carol Mellberg, CHAC director of special programs, the council since its inception more than two years ago has successfully destigmatized and advocated for teens’ mental health.

“One of their first projects was to collaborate with CHAC to update our middle school Teen Talk curriculum to better reflect teen perspectives and needs,” Mellberg said. “And these teens have been participating in CHAC’s clinician training program, sharing with CHAC’s new clinicians the approaches and tools they find most helpful. … Over this past year, this 10-member group of teens has been on the frontlines of COVID and mental health by bringing in an innovative buddy program to our elementary school kids to promote connection, play and peer mentoring.”

A common thread among the teen speakers was a desire to help others overcome their challenges.

“Mental health is kind of looked down upon – people don’t really talk about it that much,” said council member Richard, a junior at Homestead High. “I wanted to see some change in that – I really value it, because when you’re doing something artistic like drawing or flute or something, it’s really hard to bring out that passion if you’re worried about something else.”

Riley offered as an example how she uses a mental health skill to cope.

“Junior year has been very tough,” she said. “Balancing sports, clubs, volunteering – the demands that teens put on themselves are huge. So I’ve tried to slow down and listen to my body and mind’s stress signals, and I try to find a way to course-correct if I’m doing too much.”

Kelly, a junior at Los Altos High, noted that her awareness of and involvement in mental health issues helps her cope effectively with her anxieties.

“I started stepping outside my comfort zone a lot more,” she said, after joining the advisory council. “Since the start of the pandemic, I started feeling the need to do more things in my community because there’s just so many problems, and I thought maybe I could fix at least a few of them.”

As she spoke to a virtual audience of 40-50 people May 12, Kelly said she is learning to “push past that anxiety.”

“I think if people have more knowledge about mental health problems in general, then they’ll be able to deal with them and it would make a really big difference,” she said.

‘Complicated Problem’

According to Colin, who attends Homestead High, mental health struggles are on the rise.

“I feel like the mental health crisis within society is getting worse, and I think the general population is trying to ignore it – especially during the pandemic,” he said. “I think that issue is becoming more apparent – people are struggling with mental health and personal motivation. I’ve run into more people who have struggled with these issues in the last six months than I think I have in the last six years.”

Having suffered from a lack of self-esteem and being in a “dark place,” Colin said, “I want to do what I can to make sure other people don’t end up there. … Mental health pretty much influences everything that we do – (it’s) difficult to improve in my opinion because it’s not something you can buy or earn, and that makes it a really complicated problem.”

Riley added that future leaders need to champion mental health, because the “message needs to come from the top down.”

“If adults and teens aren’t hearing it from leaders, then they’re less likely to take on the message that mental health is important,” she said.

Marsha Deslauriers, CHAC executive director, emphasized the importance of connection.

“The pandemic has been hard on all of us, but our teens and young adults have been impacted the most,” Deslauriers said. “We do best when we’re recovering from this pandemic through positive connection with one another and truly listening to one another.”

Mountain View-based CHAC has been providing health-care services to individuals and families in the local community for nearly 50 years.

De-stressing tips

CHAC offered the following tips for teens feeling stressed from Shannon Fitzpatrick and Veronica Foster, therapists affiliated with the council:

1. Practice self-care. Make self-care a part of your daily routine. It’s not always easy to take time for yourself, but if you schedule it into your day, it will become a habit. Self-care can be any activity that helps you relax or brings you joy, including reading, walking, watching a movie, spending time with a pet, talking to friends, etc.

2. Try new hobbies. Finding activities you are passionate about develops deeper self-awareness and builds new skills. Hobbies also increase self-esteem, confidence and feelings of fulfillment and happiness.

3. Get lots of sleep. Not getting enough sleep is detrimental to your mental, physical, and emotional health. It’s not easy fitting sleep into a busy schedule of academic, social, and recreational activities, but having a regular sleep schedule will help you function at your best.

4. Meditate. Mindful meditation – focusing your awareness on the present moment without interpretation or judgment – promotes relaxation while reducing anxiety, depression, and stress. Meditating just a couple minutes each day helps with focus and promotes a sense of calm and a feeling of general well-being.

5. Exercise. Physical activity reduces stress, anxiety and depression. Exercise triggers the release of endorphins – feel-good chemicals in the brain – and enhances your mood and energy levels. It is important for your mind, body and overall well-being.

In addition to the above strategies, try talking to someone. Talking through problems can help release pent-up feelings and help you find healthy coping skills and a solution to your problem. By talking it out with a trusted friend, adult or counselor, you feel less alone, reduce stress levels and increase self-awareness.

Shannon Fitzpatrick and Veronica Foster, M.A., are Licensed Marriage and Family Practice Therapists affiliated with the Community Health Awareness Council. For more information, visit chacmv.org.