Over the past year, youth mental health advocates Connor Dalgaard and Luna Plaza have been important leaders in the PA Youth Advocacy Network's work to promote teen mental health. Gearing up for a new teen leadership series in February, Dalgaard, Plaza, and the Network are calling for more teens across Pennsylvania to get involved.
At the encouragement of his school psychologists, Dalgaard joined his school's mental health club and later become involved with the PA Youth Advocacy Network. Now a senior at West Allegheny High School, he helped to draft a proclamation to declare May 23 as Teen Mental Health Awareness Day in the city of Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania, which was approved by the Pittsburgh City Council and Governor Tom Wolf. Dalgaard is also a freelance writer published in PublicSource, a youth voice and innovation fellow with the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh, and he plays tennis and volunteers at his local library.
Plaza, who is completing her senior year at Pittsburgh CAPA for dance, grew up with an eating disorder and had difficulty accessing resources. The supportive environment she found at Pittsburgh CAPA led her to advocate for better mental health resources for other students, and she joined the PA Youth Advocacy Network in 2021. Plaza also acts with the Urban Impact Foundation's theatre troupe, teaches younger dance students at Urban Impact, and organizes for social justice causes in her community.
After the events of the past two years, "We need to promote healing," says Plaza. To find joy in small moments, Plaza spends time outside in sunny, green spaces with her dog and enjoys delicious meals. Dalgaard finds mornings motivating, especially his early walks to the bus stop.
Both Plaza and Dalgaard are committed to expanding mental health resources for teens and raising awareness. With the guidance of the Jewish Healthcare Foundation teen mental health team, Plaza, Dalgaard, and other Pittsburgh teens drafted an agenda of advocacy priorities for the PA Youth Advocacy Network. Dalgaard and Plaza are focused on changing school policy to allow mental health days, raising awareness, and building connections in the community.
In spring 2022, the PA Youth Advocacy Network will invite high school students across Pennsylvania to join the Teen Mental Health Advocacy Series. In weekly virtual sessions, youth advocates will learn key activism skills and join projects based on the Network's agenda of priorities, to promote teen mental health.
This program is driven by feedback from teens on how to best promote teen mental health, and Dalgaard and Plaza are excited to meet the future participants. "You'll be learning things about policy, storytelling, how to spread a message. You'll meet a lot of other like-minded teens and build relationships, both professionally and personally," says Dalgaard. The advocates encourage teens to get involved, even if they have no previous advocacy experience.
To new youth advocates, Dalgaard advises, "Be excited to meet new people." He says that through the Network, he is glad to have met Plaza and to combine their different experiences through advocacy. Their collaboration has been powerful in calling for change around teen mental health.
Plaza says, "We all have a voice, and we all should use it, and share it, and get the word out about issues that are impacting our communities."