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Sarasota and DeSoto Teens Set the Stage for Conversations about Mental Health

The following op-ed is authored by Barancik Foundation President | CEO Teri A Hansen and Boys & Girls Clubs of Sarasota and DeSoto Counties President | CEO Bill Sadlo. It was published in the Herald Tribune on May 15, 2023. 

May is National Mental Health Awareness Month, and despite the stigma that often accompanies mental illness, local teens are unfettered by the topic, reminding the rest of us that it sometimes takes getting comfortable with the uncomfortable to make progress.

As leaders in youth development, Boys & Girls Clubs of Sarasota and DeSoto Counties is elevating youth safety, youth wellness, and, as importantly, youth voices.

To know the Club is to love the Club, and for those of you who do, you won’t be surprised to hear about its Youth Council.  It’s a dynamic initiative driven and led by young people that empowers teens to collaborate toward making change.

Each year, Council members select a community issue they are passionate about and work together through advocacy and action to achieve tangible results. 

This year, the Council caught the attention of Boys & Girls Clubs of America, who challenged them to put together a Youth Voice and Advocacy Project, supported in part by Family Dollar.  With added support from Barancik Foundation, the teens chose to focus on mental health.

The statistics are jarring. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among people aged 10-14 and the third leading cause of death among those aged 15-24 in the U.S.  Like many of us, today’s teens have been impacted by suicide.  They know the gravity of mental illness and don’t take it lightly.

If you recall your teenage years, you will remember they weren’t easy.  The physical, social, and emotional transitions are difficult enough, but tack on unprecedented isolation, virtual schooling, social media, hurricane recovery, and economic impacts on families, and it’s no wonder teens are experiencing unmatched anxiety and depression.

In Sarasota and DeSoto Counties, Council leaders took their assignment and ran with it.  They boldly put together a full-day, statewide summit at the organization’s Lee Wetherington campus on Fruitville Road. 

With an impressive turnout of more than 80 young people, mentors, and mental health professionals, the Council constructed an agenda fueled by impact.

With a focus on mindfulness, the morning began with yoga.  Attendees then moved into opening remarks from the Council’s Chair and “Youth of the Year.”  Next up was keynote speaker Dr. Sarah Watamura, professor, and chair of the Department of Psychology at the University of Denver.

Her presentation was on brain chemistry and development and humans’ fundamental need for social connection.  Dr. Watamura also talked about the opportunity for brain development in three stages of life: at birth, puberty, and parenthood.

This sparked conversation about coping with past trauma, which included those two recent years many teens and many of us only saw one another through computer screens.

Attendees moved into educational workshops on coping with stress and anxiety, preventing self-harm and suicide, and substance abuse.  The Council thought ahead and filled the lunch hour with a panel discussion on education policy.

Later in the day, attendees worked on drafting effective bills and policies and honing their persuasive speaking skills with guidance from subject-matter experts.

Our friends at Gulf Coast Community Foundation helped close the summit with a conversation on next steps.  After all, attendees had just dedicated their entire Saturday to writing, learning, and engaging in an awfully heavy topic.  Many would leave the summit and rush home to get ready for prom.

From mental health education and how to identify resources to understanding state mandates and communicating with legislators, the Council used every minute of the day to create a meaningful experience for their peers. 

One attendee noted they felt “Empowered and equipped with knowledge.”  He went on to say, “I feel in control to discuss my mental health.  The summit taught me that if we change our perspective on mental health education, we can realize a world where life’s unique challenges aren’t quite as daunting.”

Wise perspective from an 18-year-old. 

We can learn a lot from these teens, including how to make progress by allowing ourselves to get comfortable with the uncomfortable.

The Club hopes to generate more community-wide discussion and action around teen mental health to promote a culture of understanding and support for young people facing these issues. Fortunately, the Club already serves as a safe space for many, where teens talk openly without fear of stigma or judgment.

Imagine what might happen if we all started doing the same.

Mental health is a strong focus of Barancik Foundation’s work, and the Club was beloved by both Chuck and Margie.

We often talk about how inspired Margie felt after her first Club tour.

Can you imagine how impressed she would be if she could see our teens today?

Link to story in Herald Tribune here

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