On March 23, the inaugural Teen Mental Health Advocacy Series hosted by the Jewish Healthcare Foundation (JHF) and the PA Youth Advocacy Network held its finale session. The series connected twenty-four high-school students across Pennsylvania to explore advocacy opportunities and how they can call for better teen mental health resources in their schools and communities. Participants joined from 10 Pennsylvania counties, with representation in both urban and rural areas. Clusters of participants hailed from eastern and western Pennsylvania, in York, Lancaster, and Allegheny Counties, and the series also welcomed students from several rural areas. These new connections further strengthened the statewide alliances of the PA Youth Advocacy Network.
The March advocacy series sessions introduced participants to key advocacy skills, including storytelling as an advocacy tool. The sessions also provided participants with opportunities to learn from one another and from community leaders. Guest speakers included Ayala Rosenthal, teen engagement and outreach coordinator at Friendship Circle, Danyelle Borish, project coordinator at Stand Together, Susan Smith, M.Ed., youth services program specialist with the BCRC in Beaver County, Sophia Duck, training and engagement manager at The Mentoring Partnership SWPA, Jamal Ford, youth resources coordinator with the Pennsylvania Care Partnership, and Abby Rickin-Marks, youth mental health advocate and first-year student at Oberlin College.
The series also provided peer leadership opportunities for two youth advocates, Connor Dalgaard, senior at West Allegheny High School, and Luna Plaza, senior at Pittsburgh CAPA. Throughout the series, Dalgaard and Plaza acted as youth facilitators and provided guidance and peer mentorship.
For the final session, teams of students developed and presented advocacy project plans based on five youth-identified, key teen mental health priorities: mental health curriculum development, mental health day policy for excused absences from school, prioritizing substance use prevention efforts, raising awareness, and everyday activism.
Three teams proposed website designs: one to support teachers as they create mental health curriculums; one to provide teen-focused mental health resources about substance use; and one to encourage teen mental health everyday activism, with the goal of using these tools to build public will and form coalitions around these causes. Another team created plans for organizing a statewide legislative advocacy campaign, to form relationships with policymakers and raise awareness of teen perspectives. The fifth team aims to call for mental health day excused absence legislation across Pennsylvania, using a teen-created public opinion survey that has received nearly 200 responses.
Participants completed the series with greater understanding and confidence in their abilities to promote positive change in their communities and to collaborate with others. The PA Youth Advocacy Network will provide ongoing opportunities for youth to share their perspectives and shape the Network's advocacy initiatives.
Advocacy Series participant Elwin from eastern Pennsylvania said, "As someone who comes from a school where I feel mental health is not talked about enough, meeting people from across the state who shared my interest gave me hope that there are other people who recognize the need for advocacy. Now more than ever, I feel like I can make a difference."