Schools have mental health resources. They have counselors. What they often lack are students willing to reach out for help.

“It’s all about changing that stigma first,” says NHS member Esha Bolar from Johnston High School in Johnston, IA. “At my school, I think there are resources. Kids just don’t feel comfortable using them.”

Now, in a groundbreaking approach, NASSP has convened the NHS Student Leadership Network on Mental Health. It’s the first of a planned group of networks giving NHS membership a booster shot of engagement by enlisting students themselves to lead discussion and action on the hottest topics of the day.

For the Network on Mental Health, students are creating agendas for monthly virtual meetings, planning a fall conference, taking care of their own mental health needs, and coalescing to take the sting out of the stigma around seeking help in their schools and communities.

Mental Health in Crisis

In December 2021, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued an urgent call to address the mental health needs of children and youth already in crisis—and made worse by the pandemic’s forced isolation.

As an organization that runs student programs, NASSP is well aware of this crisis and has sought to help students do something about it. “Supporting the mental health needs of our children is essential to ensure they can thrive and grow, and it’s of particular importance as students and families continue to navigate the challenges of the pandemic,” says Ronn Nozoe, CEO of NASSP.

And yet, student leaders know that classmates will avoid seeking help as long as mental illness is stigmatized. “People don’t want to talk about mental health,” says Lawson Morris, a senior at Oskaloosa High School in Oskaloosa, IA. “I’ve had friends come to me who were afraid to tell even their own families that they were struggling. Mental health is just as important as physical health, so it’s really sad to hear things like that.”

Morris is one of nine facilitators selected from NHS-member applicants to lead the NHS Student Leadership Network on Mental Health. It’s the first foray into NASSP’s new leadership cultivation effort, with the organization convening students around timely issues and giving them the opportunity to discuss them.

Any NHS member can join, and over 400 are currently enrolled in the network. Since the first virtual meeting in February, the students selected as facilitators (based on nominations from their advisers) have taken the lead. Aman Dhanda, NASSP’s chief engagement officer, notes that the network truly reflects distributive leadership among students. “It’s been amazing to watch how they’ve connected with each other and made sure that everyone has a voice,” she says. (Editor’s note: The Leadership Network for School Leaders of Color is featured here.)

As NASSP officials developed the idea of student-led networks, an obvious choice emerged for the first grouping. In discussions with students, officials heard a unified voice around the shared challenges of mental health throughout the pandemic. “They want to connect with each other outside of their local community,” Dhanda says. “They want a nationwide network to talk about what’s happening and know they’re not the only ones dealing with this.” 

Future networks will track other topics that are of interest to students, whether it’s homelessness or climate change. As the concept progresses, NASSP’s flexible platform and virtual-meeting technology will allow students to convene around evergreen subjects or timely pop-ups and engage in peer networking and community building.

The format’s immediacy allows students to address a topic while it’s hot, rather than watching it cool while waiting for its appearance on a conference agenda, says Ann Postlewaite, NASSP’s director of community. “What’s important about these virtual online networks is that it can be in the now.”

An event planned for fall 2022 is expected to convene members of the Network on Mental Health and their advisers for talks and panels designed and planned by students. Between such gatherings, NASSP hopes that regular virtual meetings will intensify connections that students can leverage to make real change in the areas that motivate them.

“The whole point of the network for NASSP is to really think about engagement as long-term and continuous rather than having events for one-time connections,” Dhanda says. 

Bolar, a high school senior, is another facilitator of the Network on Mental Health. She credits the experience with teaching her the value of listening as a leader. “A lot of times, leaders are seen as the people speaking out, but sometimes being a leader takes that skill of being able to listen,” she says. “We had a lot of students on our last call, and it was a place to just talk about how our week was going. Sometimes, you don’t get that opportunity in school or elsewhere unless you have a therapist or trusted adult, and some students don’t have that.”

Students Find Their Niche

Delaney Mosteller’s introduction to the importance of mental health came in seventh grade, when her principal recommended that she help found a chapter of Sources of Strength, a youth suicide prevention program, in her school. One of the chapter’s projects included making Valentine’s Day roses with encouraging notes for all students to show that the group was looking out for their peers and teachers and creating more of a community. Mental health, comparable to physical health in importance, especially matters in the middle and high school years, when “everyone’s trying to find themselves,” says Mosteller, a senior at Heritage High School in Littleton, CO. “Everyone has their own personal struggles. This national network connects the whole country and equips the student leaders to help their own individual schools and communities. I’d love to be a part of that change and be a part of that process.”

Morris, the facilitator from Oskaloosa, says the network’s format is working well. At the first virtual meeting, he and other facilitators led breakout-room discussions where participants shared their biggest stressors and their coping resources. The questions were prewritten but discussions “were really open,” he says. “You could talk about whatever you wanted.”

Facilitator Mohammad Shedeed learned in his applied psychology class sophomore year that mental health “applies to our everyday lives, which you can’t say for a lot of other topics.” The senior at South Fayette High School in McDonald, PA, has increasingly viewed mental health as a growing societal issue, especially among teens, and by the time he joined the network, he was already involved in other national, state, and school mental health initiatives.

That’s the kind of passion the networks are meant to tap into, making NHS membership more meaningful, personal, and engaging. 

Plus, when students feel safe enough to discuss their feelings, NASSP can share with advisers the high-level lessons learned in what’s motivating them. “Advisers can use that to inform programming on school sites,” Dhanda says. “What does engagement in National Honor Society look like for a typical student? Maybe these students aren’t engaged in other aspects. How are we providing more than the typical opportunities to engage, and how are we helping to provide those supports to advisers?”

Student Power

While NASSP provides the platform, students provide the energy and the agenda. “It is such a cool concept to have the students lead this,” Mosteller says. “I do truly believe that students should have a say in their community and their schools, especially because we’re there for five days a week. It’s critical that students lead these network meetings because you learn the most from your peers. Because it’s led by students, it’s more approachable, and it’s more comfortable.”

NASSP has equipped network facilitators and members with “the tools to carry out our mission,” says Morris. “A big goal of the network is to empower student leaders. If we have strong leaders with good mental health, hopefully, that will carry on to the people that they’re leading. That’s really our goal.”

Being student-led has also given the conversations an informal feel, which participants can take back to their schools, incorporating mental health discussions and resources into the natural flow of the school year, Morris says. A barrier that adults face in understanding teenagers’ mental health struggles is when adults try to reach out, but teenagers don’t feel comfortable sharing. If peers talk to someone their age who’s been in their shoes, they’ll be much more willing to open up and overcome the stigma of seeking support for mental health and find solutions to their challenges.

While one of the goals of the network is empowering students as mental health advocates, it is also an outlet for the students themselves—high achievers who may feel pressured to succeed.

“It’s in the name,” Mosteller says. “It gives people a free space to share how they’re feeling and get the opportunity to do something about it if changes need to be made.”

Outsized expectations to succeed academically and rack up activities can degrade self-worth, which can cause anxiety, stress, and depression, Shedeed says. He hopes to seed the network with lessons from his experience with Work2BeWell, a digital wellness program, and its extensive lineup of podcasts, articles, videos, and trusted organizations. “Resources, resources, resources,” he says. “The goal for the NHS network is to reach as many students as possible so they can take these ideas back to their own schools and attempt to implement them, so we can all collectively improve our schools and the students in them.”

Ready to Launch

The Network on Mental Health could provide a launching pad for students to share successful initiatives and projects as inspiration for others to pursue, Postlewaite says. Network facilitators are eager to learn ideas for erasing stigma and improving the mental health climate at their schools.

“I hope to bring back more resources, more unique ways of getting kids to open up, and also getting administrators to see that more and how to address it better in my community,” Bolar says. “We’re certainly taking steps to get there, but having more resources and having more know-how on how to treat mental health issues will definitely help.”

And it’s not just the mental health of the students she’s worried about. “I’d like to bring more attention to the administrative side of recognizing student health and allowing our administrators to take care of their mental health,” she says.

After a difficult and lonely pandemic, Mosteller sees herself offering to the network her passion for inclusion. “Being there for each other is something that can bring communities together,” she says. “I feel so strongly that’s what it’s about. Going to your school’s play or showing up to games—that makes a world of difference.” 

M. Diane McCormick is a freelance writer based in Harrisburg, PA.