York County youth hold town hall on mental health

Junior Gonzalez
York Dispatch

At the start of a two-hour town hall meeting on student mental health, a question from student panelists went out to teachers and administrators: What do you think when you hear mental health?

Students from the York County Youth Mental Health Alliance hold a town hall discussion on student wellness needs at York Suburban High School on Wednesday, March 28, 2018.

A deafening silence kicked in before Northeastern School District social worker Kathy Minnich repeated the question. Nothing.

“Our adults are scared,” she said to laughs from the students and the audience.

What ensued was a conversation between students, teachers and administrators from nearly a dozen York County school districts.

The event — organized by the York County Youth Mental Health Alliance and held in the York Suburban High School auditorium on March 28 — had students take on issues about mental health and bullying in front of an audience of about 200.

Topics included the trade-offs of the internet and social media, teacher understanding of psychological conditions and the use of additional resources to address mental wellness.

Northeastern High School freshman Abigail O’Leary said social networking might be a good thing because it allows more timid students to find a community where they feel they belong.

Others, such as Michaela DeLauter, a sophomore at Dover Area High School, said the opposite.

“The thing about social media is that you can’t get away from it,” she said. "Being online and opening your phone and seeing all of these messages you can’t — you don’t even feel safe in your home anymore.”

Alli Reeser, a freshman at Central York High School, said students feel like teachers want them to know what they’re going to do with the rest of their lives from an early age without any doubt.

“We feel like we aren’t allowed to have issues,” she said.

'Advanced course': The students weren’t just speaking to parents and teachers — several state and local changemakers were there, including school board members, York County Coroner Pam Gay and Robert Reed, executive deputy attorney general for the state office of public engagement.

Reed praised the students for their discussion, calling it “an extraordinary experience” to witness.

More:York County teens fighting stigma of mental-health issues

More:EDITORIAL: The silence ends here

He said after attending the Philadelphia March for Our Lives on Saturday, March 24, he came away “incredibly inspired and hopeful that we have a generation of leaders” looking to make change.

“But here, tonight,” Reed added, “is the advanced course.”

For much of his career as a federal prosecutor, Reed said, he saw countless numbers of people with mental illnesses get locked away.

“Really, the criminal justice system has become the place to put the mentally ill,” he said. “That’s an overgeneralization, but that has become part of my experience."

Student reaction: After the talk, many students came away hopeful that their concerns will be addressed in the classroom.

“Maybe we didn’t have enough time to say everything we wanted to, but we definitely got the point across,” Alli, president of Central York’s Aevidum club, said after the town hall.

Aevidum Club President Allison Reeser, 14, front, and Science teacher/Aevidum Club Advisor Brian Heisey adhere about 1,000 hands, representing each of about 1,000 students at the school, around the windows of the cafeteria at Central York Middle School in Springettsbury Township, Thursday, March 8, 2018.

She said she hopes the town hall encouraged parents to look at new ways of talking to their children to encourage them to speak up about their mental health.

More:At Central York Middle School, a message of acceptance and worth to all

Susquehannock High School senior Michael Torbert, 17, said the March 28 meeting was the first and most important hurdle for several parents and students in attendance.

“The biggest and most important step somebody can take is to start that conversation, which is what we did tonight,” he said. 

After all, the alliance's mantra is "The Silence Ends Here."

Michael added that teachers have a huge influence on the mental wellness of a student, with which his social studies teacher, Andy Warren, concurred.

“I think it's important, as teachers, understanding that relationships are just as important as grades,” Warren said, “and that those relationships will help our students lead healthy and successful lives beyond high school.”

More to come: The York County Youth Mental Health Alliance will continue its efforts to raise awareness for student mental wellness with the Light Up the Night: Mental Health Fair & 5K Run on Saturday, May 12.

The event will include dozens of tables with resources for mental health services as well as food, games and prizes.

For more information on the event, visit the York County Youth Mental Health Alliance Facebook page at www.facebook.com/thesilenceends/