Student Well-Being Q&A

Act on Student Ideas to Improve Mental Health, Youth Advocate Urges

By Evie Blad — April 04, 2024 4 min read
conceptual illustration of an umbrella opening clear skies in a storm
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

As schools confront a youth mental health crisis, they must engage students in finding solutions, said Rick Yang, 17, a senior at Scarsdale High School in New York.

The Jed Foundation (JED), an organization that promotes mental health and suicide prevention for teens and young adults, honored Yang as one of two recipients of its 2024 Student Voice of Mental Health Award in recognition of his state and local advocacy work.

Yang, who is Chinese American, was inspired to action when he saw the barriers a fellow Asian American friend faced in seeking mental health treatment during the COVID-19 pandemic. He attributes some of those barriers to the “model minority myth,” a term that refers to cultural stereotypes of Asian American students as high-achieving and academically gifted—a perception that may cause some adults and peers to overlook their needs.

He later advocated for wellness centers in his school district, and he co-founded “Frontiers of Fulfillment,” a group that provides online coaching for student leaders to advocate for policies like excused school absences for mental health.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did your experience during the COVID-19 pandemic influence your advocacy?

I was pretty isolated during [the beginning of] the pandemic. As an incoming freshman, I would say that my transition from middle school to high school wasn’t the greatest. I started high school half remote and half in-person, and it was pretty surreal to live in a world where I kind of stuck in my room most of the time.

Rick Yang

I was pretty depressed, locked in my room, playing every video game you could possibly imagine. And sometimes I was even unable to eat dinner with my family. And I think it was certainly that experience, coupled with what I went through with my friend, that showed me that student mental health was a real concern that needed to be addressed.

My friend and I would FaceTime every night. She was depressed and wanted to seek help, but her parents wouldn’t let her at first. They eventually did, and she was actually diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Now she’s doing great; she’s thriving now.

My hypothesis is that—coming from a relatively high-achieving community with a lot of Asian Americans—the model minority myth prevented [her family] from seeking help. She’s a good student, and they didn’t want her to be perceived as weak.

How does your cultural identity as a Chinese American inform your work?

Oftentimes, culture and mental health are interconnected. When we approach mental health challenges in a certain community, I think it’s important to understand how the people in that community have grown up.

I try to highlight the diversity among Asian Americans because we are obviously not all the same. But a lot of us have encountered the model minority myth, even through subtle microaggressions in the hallways. I try to promote education among adults, including teachers, to break down some of the barriers that might keep students from seeking care.

How can schools more effectively address student mental health?

Mental health supports need to be comprehensive in order to effectively reach students. That means all students should be considered, supported, and protected. What works for one student may not help another. There is no one-size-fits-all approach.

What I admire about the Jed Foundation is [its] comprehensive approach to mental health promotion and suicide prevention. It recognizes that there are multiple areas of well-being—like learning about life skills, or having a counseling center—that can make a difference in someone’s life.

Ultimately, I think schools need to listen to the students themselves.

How did you advocate for student mental health in your school district?

The main initiative I started is called SchoolSight. In 2021, I realized the stress students faced at Scarsdale High School needed to be addressed. I attended a conference with Congressman Jamal Bowman where I essentially crafted a proposal to implement universal school-based wellness centers in Westchester County, which eventually blossomed into a countywide initiative.

The response was overwhelmingly enthusiastic. I began creating blueprints for introducing these [centers] in schools—universal wellness spaces for all students—starting with a pilot in my high school. So far, I’ve secured over $125,000 in grant funding to develop these spaces. They include things like de-stress zones with beanbags and yoga balls, board games, and places to study privately. Eventually, I’d like to see this scaled up to other districts.

What do you want educators to know about student mental health?

If we genuinely want to make a difference, we must not only allow but actively encourage young people to speak up. We must create environments where young people feel safe to express their thoughts, struggles, and ideas and treat them as equal partners. It fosters a sense of ownership and empowerment among the youth when they see their ideas and feedback being taken seriously.

I think school administrators, policymakers, community leaders must not only try to create platforms for youth to express their views, but they need to actually use that input in decision-making. Co-creation and agency are essential for young people to feel supported.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Budget & Finance Webinar
Innovative Funding Models: A Deep Dive into Public-Private Partnerships
Discover how innovative funding models drive educational projects forward. Join us for insights into effective PPP implementation.
Content provided by Follett Learning
Budget & Finance Webinar Staffing Schools After ESSER: What School and District Leaders Need to Know
Join our newsroom for insights on investing in critical student support positions as pandemic funds expire.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Achievement Webinar
How can districts build sustainable tutoring models before the money runs out?
District leaders, low on funds, must decide: broad support for all or deep interventions for few? Let's discuss maximizing tutoring resources.
Content provided by Varsity Tutors for Schools

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Student Well-Being In Their Own Words These Students Found Mental Health Support in After-School Programs. See How
3 students discuss how after-school programs benefit their well-being.
6 min read
Vector illustration of a woman sitting indian style with her arms spread wide and a rainbow above her head.
iStock/Getty
Student Well-Being Cellphone Headaches in Middle Schools: Why Policies Aren't Enough
Middle schoolers' developmental stage makes them uniquely vulnerable to the negative aspects of cellphones. Policies alone won't help.
6 min read
A student holds a cell phone during class at Bel Air High School in Bel Air, Md., on Jan. 25, 2024.
A student holds a cellphone during class at Bel Air High School in Bel Air, Md., on Jan. 25, 2024.
Jaclyn Borowski/Education Week
Student Well-Being Teachers Want Parents to Step Up to Curb Cellphone Misuse. Are They Ready?
A program from the National PTA aims to partner with schools to give parents resources on teaching their children healthy tech habits.
5 min read
Elementary students standing in line against a brick wall using cellphones and not interacting.
iStock/Getty
Student Well-Being Schools Feel Less Equipped to Meet Students' Mental Health Needs Than a Few Years Ago
Less than half of public schools report that they can effectively meet students’ mental health needs.
4 min read
Image of a student with their head down on their arms, at a desk.
Olga Beliaeva/iStock/Getty