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Editor’s note: We updated this story on Dec. 20 to show that Truc Dao and Andrew Le are director and vice director of Students Empowerment, respectively, and members of ICTeens in Mind.
One of the things Truc Dao has relearned in 20 months of high school during the pandemic is how to catch her breath.
The pandemic, of course, has been an ongoing concern for the Wichita South High School senior — and students across Wichita USD 259.
But even before COVID, being a teenager was increasingly difficult, Dao said. High expectations, responsibilities and pressures come from just about everywhere and everyone, she explained.
“Sometimes, as a teenager who has schoolwork, financial obligations and this pressure to be involved — it feels like I can’t breathe,” Dao said. “And I know that’s exactly the same way for all of my peers, whether they’re as involved in the community or not.”
Dao isn’t alone in her observations. This month, the U.S. surgeon general issued a national advisory urging the country to respond to a looming youth mental health crisis. In October, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association declared a national state of emergency over the issue.
As the alarm sounds on the mental health emergency among youth, though, Dao and others in groups like ICTeens in Mind see a chance for students to lead the response.
Teens need to be part of mental health conversation
Dao and Wichita Southeast junior Andrew Le are members of ICTeens in Mind, a student-led coalition that addresses youth mental health challenges.
“Our goal has been to educate people that it’s OK to talk about mental health,” Le said. “It affects our everyday lives, but people traditionally haven’t seen that because people would never talk about it.”
The organization is part of Safe Streets Wichita, which works to keep children from having easy access to illicit substances. That means ICTeens in Mind members also work on related matters — like preventing substance abuse and working to encourage stable home environments — that play a big role in teens’ mental health.
ICTeens in Mind members have used the group as a springboard to develop other projects, like setting up community refrigerators in Wichita USD 259 schools to provide food for students in need. Some members plan to also use mini grants from Youth Service America, a national organization that provides funding for youth community projects, to start initiatives like a mental health storytelling project and youth-led community issue panels.
Dao is also founder and director of Students Empowerment, a student group that focuses on giving youth a platform to voice their struggles and concerns.
Both Dao and Le, vice director for Students Empowerment, organized “Sharing Kindness” walls at their schools. The project allows students to post notes of encouragement to one another during finals week.
“(The walls) have been a positive thing, especially because nowadays, people in our schools have been more compassionate and able to understand each other’s feelings,” Le said, adding that “it’s not hard at all to be nice.”
Ngoc Vuong, who founded ICTeens in Mind when he was a student at Wichita South in 2017, now advises the group through his role as a community mobilizer with Partners for Wichita, a local organization that works to improve well-being in Wichita.
Any efforts to address youth mental health must have students’ buy-in, he said.
“You start making assumptions about what young people want or need (when they’re not involved),” Vuong said. “But you need them at the decision table. It’s not a perfect process, and there may be years of gaps in skills and experience, but it’s approaching this issue from different perspectives.”
‘We’ve become almost breathless’
To Dao, it’s not just a different perspective teens bring to addressing mental health challenges among their peers — it’s a different reality.
Even before COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had been tracking mental health as a growing problem for teens — particularly among Black and LGBTQ youth. Locally, the annual Kansas Communities That Care survey has shown a similar uptick. More than 1 in 3 teenagers in the state reported feeling so sad or hopeless that they’d stopped doing regular activities, according to the most recent survey.
Apart from high-stakes pressure and expectations put on students, Dao said substance abuse and family environments also contribute to the rise in mental health issues seen in youth.
“You have to have an environment where you feel safe to grow and to be who you are,” Dao said. “But if there’s not a safe environment at home, you’re more likely to come into touch with substance use, which then takes another toll on your cognitive development. And that’s taken us to the mental health issues that we’re seeing today.”
What can youth do?
In urging the nation to address a youth mental health crisis, the U.S. surgeon general outlined steps teenagers can take to “protect, improve and advocate for their mental health and that of their family, friends and neighbors”:
• Remember that mental health challenges are real, common and treatable.
• Ask for help.
• Invest in healthy relationships.
• Find ways to serve.
• Learn and practice techniques to manage stress and other difficult emotions.
• Take care of your body and mind.
• Be intentional about your use of social media, video games and other technologies.
• Be a source of support for others.
Le said those issues were exacerbated by COVID-19 as students lost the ability to engage in genuine social interactions with classmates. Social media has also played a role in conditioning teenagers to have unrealistic expectations of themselves, and that effect intensified during the pandemic, he said.
Altogether, teenagers today are facing an onslaught of pressures in every facet of their lives, Dao said.
“(Teenagers) have been under such a constant level of stress and anxiety, that we’ve become almost breathless,” she said.
Some of the rise in the reported rates of mental health issues, though, can be attributed to this generation of teenagers being more willing to talk through their problems, Dao said, and that’s an encouraging sign. She said students are more willing to ask for the help they need — whether it’s an extension on an assignment, greater compassion or access to mental health care.
Dao said she has done that for herself by slowing down to catch a breath. She’s reminded herself to spend time alone, sometimes by going on a walk.
She hopes ICTeens in Mind can help others do the same.
“Sometimes, I don’t understand why my generation is getting so exhausted, but at the same time, we’re seeing more youth taking on these leadership positions to advocate for mental health,” Dao said. “We should give youth a little bit of slack to let them breathe, and to let them regain the energy, effort and enthusiasm that they should have.”