By Meadowlark Monaghan, AIM Youth Advisory Board Member
I’ll never forget walking across my college campus and stumbling across a plastic, A-frame sign that read, “Mental Health Peep? Come check out this job!”
I was a freshman at UC Santa Barbara eager to study Psychology after surviving a high school experience that included the loss of my brother by suicide (see our Suicide Prevention Toolkit for youth and caregivers), the loss of my father, and a myriad of sibling mental health challenges in between.
Sunk into a squishy pillow on the floor, crammed into a room with other undergraduates, I felt I was exactly where I was meant to be. The position—a “mental health peer” for the college’s Counseling & Psychological Services—was a liaison between the undergraduate student body and the therapists on staff for them. We provided basic counseling, led trainings across campus, and most notably, conduced suicide prevention research and presented it at a state-wide conference.
Being a mental health peer changed the course of my entire life.
As someone who a personal connection to suicide loss, being able to learn the fundamentals of research, survey my community about a topic I was so passionate about, and present my findings to help make real change… it kickstarted an entire career and personal mission to destigmatize and provide support for mental wellness.
One monumental decade later, a high school student named Gia Panetta found herself reading a paper print out for “AIM Youth Mental Health Ideas Lab” on her school bulletin.
Shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic, amid a cultural zeitgeist of mass shootings, racial injustice, climate issues, and a mental health crisis, Gia noticed how the addition of Zoom-led classes stifled education and social interactions and swan dived into an extremely unique and challenging back-to-school experience for her peers. She took one look at that sign and “pounced on the opportunity.”
“At first, I was nervous because I didn’t know what to expect,” she explains, “ I wanted to research the [lasting] effects of COVID on teens and figure out possible solutions… It also felt like being a civil servant; I was actually doing something for my community that I could be proud of.”
AIM is dedicated to funding cutting-edge research for mental health solutions for youth and bridging the gap between that research and access to care. Throughout that process, they noticed a unique opportunity to engage the youth themselves in some of that research. In turn, empowering students that they can be a part of the change they wish to see.
The AIM Ideas Lab is a youth-participatory research project whose goal is to train and empower high school students to learn how to conduct research, analyze data, interpret data, and make recommendations specifically to address youth mental health.
The program has been around for two years, starting in Monterey county and has since expanded into Marin, San Luis Obispo, and San Diego. The first cohort started solely with 50 students who surveyed 500-700 of their peers; the last cohort included 70 students who surveyed 1,500 high school students all across California. Their findings contain a robust data set, breaking down demographics, mental health challenges, barriers to care, and more on a county by county basis so that California school districts can compare results across counties.
AIM developed a curriculum that teaches high school students the foundations of research including analyzing different research methods, learning how to collect data, how to write survey questions without bias, and more. The cohort then conducts a facilitated brainstorm to discuss everything relating to youth mental health—challenges the group and their peers are facing, risk factors that make it worse, protective factors or resources that are helpful, and how to encourage students to reach out to those resources.
The group then utilizes their ideas and suggestions to create a survey questionnaire to field out to their schools and peers. The students collect the data, analyze survey results (up to a few thousand responses), and then learn how to clean up the data, looking at demographic comparisons (grade levels, genders, etc.). From there, the students are encouraged to explore how they interpret it. “It’s about giving the students efficacy over interpretation,” Jennie Liang AIM’s Ideas Lab Program Director explains. She tells the students, “I can interpret this data one way but you can as well. You know what the students are saying, you know what’s going on in the schools. You’re going to know how we should interpret this data and what we do with it.”
“Something I’ve seen in our students is a feeling like there is something to do,” Jennie shares. “Teenagers feel like they don’t have power and don’t have control; like all the stuff is happening around them. This is a way to give them that power and build their capacity to create action.” In a world that stifles youth voices as “too young” or “inexperienced”—bringing youth in for their perspective on their mental health crisis is the exact point of view that nation-wide behavioral healthcare solutions are missing.
The student-led design of the program from start to finish gives the youth a sense of empowerment. “It feels like I am helping,” says Taylan Dincer, an AIM Ideas Lab Youth Researcher. “It felt amazing knowing I was contributing to this cause and creating tangible results to help my peers.” Particularly because, as Taylan puts it, “because you’re helping yourself as a result. You’re helping provide a safer space for people just like you—a space where expression is more welcome and conversation is made.”
At the end of the Ideas Lab research process, each cohort creates a Research Report (see Monterey, Marin, and San Luis Obispo) that houses all of their findings and recommendations. The report is a rich data set that is as informative as it is insightful. It lives on AIM’s site with all student names on it so they are encouraged to use it, share it, and present it to their peers.
The findings themselves surprised the youth, encouraging them even more to take action. “I thought that the amount of people who had heard their friends talk about depression was extremely high. It really shocked me that so many people are going through that because many people do not say anything about their suffering,” said Gia.
Taylan was surprised by how young men responded to questions or concerns of mental health. “They’re much more closed off and cold, and it really hurt to see that in some actual numbers. It inspired us to present more about it at a conference in San Francisco in October… Now that I’ve gotten an inside look into what’s been going on with my peers, it’s motivated me to learn and help more.” It truly is the students’ findings and their work, empowering them to take action with the report.
And inspired action is surely taking place.
After participating in Ideas Lab for the past two years, Gia approached the Monterey County Office of Education to create a youth advisory mental health council on a district-wide level. Her goal is to create a space for students to advocate for mental health resources and provide education for parents and teachers, alike. The County Office is funding her to help support her efforts.
The impact Ideas Lab has had on students themselves and their ability to be empowered leaders to address the youth mental health crisis is paramount. It’s mobilizing students to feel like they can take action and they can do something about it.
It has not only developed an extremely rich set of data on the state of mental health in high school students by high school students, it has also informed a lot of AIM’s decision making, including offering Youth Mental Health First Aid and an upcoming program launch of peer-to-peer run Teen Mental Health First Aid.
The Ideas Lab is an example of how AIM’s mission statement comes full circle: empowering youth to find tools themselves, bringing them into that process, directly teaching them about research, and then creating that data themselves. Data so impactful for future programming and published for all to see, ideally, allowing anyone who comes across it to feel inspired and take action. Action that can look like: sparking a conversation amongst your own family, getting involved with Ideas Lab, or empowering yourself to learn more about the state of youth mental health.
It’s been a long decade since I first stepped across my school campus and made a decision to get involved. Today, as a mental health professional, I see the opportunities presented to our youth to empower themselves, create their own solutions, and provide information and access to others… and it’s exactly the hope and optimism that guides me to believe the next decade will be filled with a lot more happiness and mental wellness.
Sign up for this year’s recruitment for 2024 AIM Ideas Lab!
Calling students! If you are (or know) a high school student in the counties of Monterey, Marin, Alameda, or San Diego who would be interested in participating in AIM Ideas Lab please reach out to Jennie Liang at jennie@AIMymh.org.
About the Author
Meadowlark Monaghan (she/hers) is a consultant using her knowledge gained as a mental health professional to act as a liaison between brands, creators, + online communities with the field of psychology and mental health. She also co-hosts the personal development podcast, Thoughts May Vary. Her work has been seen with Madhappy, Local Optimist, The Mayfair Group, Lonely Ghost, AIM Youth Mental Health, NAMI San Diego and more.