Mohammad Shedeed is a former facilitator of the Student Leadership Network on Mental Health.

Although special observances such as Mental Health Awareness Month in May and World Teen Mental Wellness Day in March go a long way in helping to elevate young people’s mental health and well-being, we must prioritize student wellness every day. I didn’t always believe this was the case. In this article, I want to share how school budget cuts inadvertently led me to take a closer look at the importance of mental health. And for that, I am eternally grateful.

An Initial Skeptic

In my sophomore year of high school, I wanted to quench my thirst for academic validation and take online AP psychology to pile up on AP classes and boost my GPA, as many high-achieving students strive to do. My school, however, did not offer the class that year because of changes in its budget due to the pandemic. So, administrators altered my schedule and placed me in applied positive psychology, a topic I had never even heard of. I was initially very disappointed that I was stuck in this seemingly pointless class.

During the first few weeks of it, I was on autopilot and would often tune out because I thought the information discussed—and mental health as an overall topic—didn’t apply to me. But the one time I wasn’t half-asleep in class and actually paid attention, I realized how wrong I was.

For an assigned project, I had to analyze the book The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work by Shawn Achor. I pored over the words as they meshed together in a sea of apparent nonsense, when one snake of words made me stop and perk up. “Happiness is not the result of success—it’s the cause of it.” This was groundbreaking information for me, as the reverse statement was constantly pounded into my ears from a young age.

My entire family is from Egypt, and talk of mental health is taboo. In my culture, there is this fear of admitting to mental health issues and breaking the status quo of being strong, which is literally my last name in Arabic (Shedeed). I tried to ignore Achor’s words, but a lingering thought kept annoying me: Could it be possible to live both a successful and happy life? As I read on and learned more about mental health, I realized how it was always a prevalent issue in my life, and I began to recognize its importance. For instance, my cousins, who would secretly take antidepressants, revealed to me the harm of suffering in silence. My grandparents’ mood swings and increased outbursts after their split proved to me that mental health challenges are not just a creation of Gen Z.

After concluding my applied positive psychology class, my teacher encouraged me to apply for a volunteer position with Work2BeWell, a national organization that focuses on destigmatizing mental health and promoting mental health resources. Overcoming my internal stigma and fear, I decided to take advantage of this opportunity, and I was offered the role of education team lead. My responsibilities for Work2BeWell involved convening biweekly Zoom meetings with students across the country and creating podcasts, presentations, and classroom curricula to destigmatize mental health issues among teens and spread awareness about available resources. I was exposed to the vast resources and knowledge relating to mental health that existed and learned how so many people did not know about all of these resources and felt they could not be accessed.

Becoming an Experienced Advocate

This work led to me becoming one of eight lead facilitators for NASSP’s Student Leadership Network on Mental Health. In this role, I met online monthly with other facilitators from across the nation to discuss relevant mental health topics for 300 participants who signed up for the network. We covered topics that were relevant at the time of each meeting, such as love languages and relationships around Valentine’s Day, stress and anxiety around the holidays in December, and self-care methods for the summer. It was truly a blessing to be part of a group that was able to reach out to students across the country and even internationally, as we had students join from Central America.

The greatest experience for us as facilitators was last fall when we, with students from our respective schools, attended the Illuminate: Student Summit on Wellness in Washington, D.C. We brainstormed projects that students, teachers, administrators, and advocates could take back to their schools to reduce the stigma around mental health and ensure they had enough resources to do so. Some of these projects included having staff development training around mental health, setting up roundtable discussions for students and teachers, and having school communities participate in interactive activities to promote mental health awareness.

On the second day of the summit, I had the opportunity to speak as part of a panel to discuss my mental health advocacy and how teens could go about fostering a healthier environment in their schools when it came to discussing mental health. On the third and final day of the summit, the teams from each school shared their respective projects and action plans. It was very powerful and inspiring to see so many people come together for this very important cause.

During the summit, I became very close with all the other facilitators. We bonded over shared experiences and at one point were editing each other’s college essays! To improve our meetings and discussion, we participated in a workshop with our adult mentors from NASSP—Enrique Ramirez, program manager, and Ann Postlewaite, director of community—about how to improve our meetings and how to continue checking in on the projects that students were working on.

Building on this work, I spoke at my local mosque about the relationship between Islam and mental health. My speech was part of a program I organized called “Youth Night,” where teens could speak about any topic, such as wearing a hijab in contemporary society and how to cope with comparisons to negative stereotypes of Islam. I was very excited to speak about my topic, as I felt it was important to debunk outdated cultural stereotypes within our beautiful religious community. It was exciting and reassuring for many people to hear verses from the Quran and stories from the life of Prophet Muhammad (S) and relate to them. I shared how Islam mandates that followers take care of their mental health and well-being and that they should support their brothers and sisters who are struggling, reducing any shame in asking for help. It was powerful to see how members of the community took note of mental health resources. After I spoke, many people told me that they felt more comfortable with the topic of mental health overall. This event at my mosque proved to me that providing general information about mental health is necessary to truly transform people’s mindsets and promote change, which is needed to combat stigma and counteract the epidemic of mental health issues in this country.

What I’ve Learned

All of these experiences have taught me that it’s important for teens (and everyone else) to prioritize mental health. Not every country is lucky enough to have a mental health infrastructure or even a society that has begun to address and foster conversations around teen mental health. That’s why I’m proud to have been a part of the Student Leadership Network on Mental Health and these other organizations. I’m also proud that our network allows teens to convene in a safe and comfortable manner and discuss relevant topics that affect their mental health.

In May, we held our cohort’s final meeting, where a panel of National Honor Society alumni discussed the transition to college. Since many of our network members were seniors, the alumni insights were incredibly helpful and prepared the younger students for postsecondary education as well.

I am slightly sad to leave this organization, but I’m very excited to see its future progress and achievements. The most important lesson for me from these last couple of years is that learning a simple fact about mental health or having an impactful conversation with teen facilitators about well-being can transform one’s perception about the overall topic—just like it did for me.

Mohammad Shedeed is a freshman at the University of Pittsburgh, a graduate of South Fayette High School in McDonald, PA, and a former facilitator of the Student Leadership Network on Mental Health.