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

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, 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.

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.

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