School & District Management Q&A

When This Principal Talks About Mental Health, People Listen. Here’s Why

A Vermont educator is an advocate in the classroom—and on Capitol Hill
By Olina Banerji — March 14, 2024 6 min read
Chris Young, a principal from Vermont, poses for a photo in front of a Senate office building in Washington, D.C.
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On a sunny, spring afternoon this week, 400 school leaders descended on the nation’s Capitol to meet with their states’ legislators. They zipped across Capitol Hill, moving from one Senate building to the next, to advocate for more supports and funds for public schools via legislation. Principals petitioned their political leaders to co-sign bills on student and teacher mental health, expand educator pipelines, and find ways to extend ESSER-era funding, which must be spent by September 2024.

But more than specific bills, or agendas, the educators brought stories from their schools and communities—which, they believed, had more impact on legislators. Several principals said they made most headway with senators or aides whose parents had taught, or who had themselves studied teaching. Bills supporting more mental health resources for schools featured heavily in almost all conversations.

Chris Young, the principal of North Country Union High School in Newport, Vt., was on the Hill too, to advocate for just these issues. He had just been announced as the Advocacy Champion of the year by the National Association of Secondary School Principals, for his work to spotlight the mental health challenges—including substance abuse and suicide attempts—that his students face. He wore a bracelet of pale amber-colored beads to every meeting, named “Norah Beads” after grade 9 student Norah Jones died by suicide in his school in 2021.

“I don’t think they [legislators] can ignore her story. Not only are they going to see that bracelet on our wrists [in the meeting] … they’ll have it on their desks as they deliberate mental health policy,” Young said.

North Country High has seen a spate of student suicides in recent years. In response, Young had taken several steps, which included training educators to have conversations with their students about thorny topics like suicide and substance abuse. While the plan initially had its critics, Young persisted, to make sure that all his educators did the necessary training and felt comfortable enough to have these conversations with students.

Education Week caught up with Young between his meetings on the Hill. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Congratulations on winning the award. What’s the key message behind your advocacy?

Thank you. I am honored and humbled to receive the award. I firmly believe that as educators, we have to get comfortable with the idea that there’s a duality [in our jobs]: Students are amazing, and students need help. It’s not a zero sum game. Students need our help now more than ever but it’s true that they’re also doing things that could change the world. I try to share that message in my school and beyond. When I talk to the outside world, I always communicate my belief in students and advocate for more resources to help improve their mental health.

Your educators have become a frontline for mental health support in your school. How’s that going?

We are at a point where it has become the culture of our school. People accept the responsibility to look for and recognize signs of poor mental health in students. The school community had to take intentional steps to do that. We need to be very strategic about connecting with kids beyond the classroom. It can be through advisory periods, or [activities like] drama, music, sports. It can make a huge difference in the kids’ lives.

What resources are needed for this approach?

Teachers coming out of their teacher-prep programs aren’t equipped to have a mental health conversation. That’s when we’re lucky enough to get prepped teachers. For some of our educators, this is their second career so they didn’t have the opportunity to get [social-emotional learning] training. We have to do it. This is where Title II funding [for teacher professional development] can help. We can do much more to make these people more comfortable with having difficult conversations.

How does that need square with the funding crunch that schools may experience come September?

We are all just hoping that the funding [from Congress] stays at the same level. Given where we are right now, we would be thrilled if we didn’t lose money. We are not that far away from making significant cuts. Once Congress passes the budget, we can see what we’re dealing with.

One thing is clear: We aren’t going to address academic learning loss if we don’t address the issue of why students feel disengaged from school. Disengagement isn’t just about blowing off a couple of classes. It starts with students being on the phone, not doing their schoolwork, dropping out, using substances, suicidal ideation. We have to try to find the reasons behind this disengagement.

What are your advocacy methods?

I call my legislators when there’s legislation or an issue that’s going to impact my school or town. I’ve talked to them enough to know them on a first-name basis. They at least pick up my calls or answer emails. I attend legislative breakfasts. I’ve been planning to send out a monthly email to them and get them on my newsletter [recipient list].

Everyone is busy, so it’s not easy to get on top of their mailboxes. So, when new legislation is passed, my first stop is these legislators, to tell them how it’s going to impact schools. When the legislation doesn’t have the impact it was intended to, we show them why.

Two years ago, Vermont passed legislation for mandatory air-quality testing in schools. To no one’s surprise, we found our air quality was poor and schools were forced to address it. But there was no plan to do anything [beyond the testing]. We went to all the house education committees, school construction committees, and local legislators, and told them to stop the testing. Towns couldn’t be expected to do this testing with very little resources, and they did put an end to the program.

Chris Young, a principal from VT, wears ‘Nora beads’ as a reminder of a student at his school who died by suicide.

What do you think about principals as advocates? Do you enjoy being in that position?

We’ve heard the [U.S.] education secretary say that if we are not cheerleaders for our school, no one else will be. I welcome it. Both my parents were teachers and so I have always defended and promoted and celebrated teachers. It’s an easy fit for me. I’m going to keep calling people and contacting my legislators. It’s part of my job.

What role does storytelling play in advocacy?

I speak in stories. I think the challenge is to be specific [while telling stories]. You need a piece of data, or the moral of the story to hold on to. You need to be clear about your ask—what change you want to see as a result of telling this story. When I wear my “Norah Beads” and telling the story around it, I am clearly advocating for more mental health resources in school.

Tell us, in your own words, what is that story?

Norah was in grade 9 when she died by suicide. Her mother’s healing process was bead-making. She was courageous enough to expand that activity to Norah’s friends, and that [meeting] space became a safe and supportive environment to talk about and de-stigmatize mental health and wellness. Once a month, her mother comes to our school and holds space for students to have conversations and make beads. It’s very powerful.

If you or anyone you know is struggling with thoughts of self-harm or suicide, help is available. Call or text 988 to reach the confidential National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or check out these resources from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

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