Children's Hospital Colorado

Youth Mental Health Toolkit for Schools and Communities

Our Pediatric Mental Health Institute has listened to community feedback: Mental health is a top concern for youth and families, as identified in the Children's Hospital Colorado Community Health Needs Assessment.

In looking for ways to address mental health education and de-stigmatization, we reviewed existing programs targeting stigma reduction among youth and turned to the work of our Mental Health Youth Action Board (YAB).

The Mental Health Youth Action Board

The YAB was created in 2013 to generate social action around mental health. Each year, a group of 15 teens from across the Denver metro area create an arts-based project to share with the community to help increase conversations regarding the spectrum of mental and emotional experiences. We have transformed the YAB projects into a toolkit that can be used with groups of youth in the community by teachers, youth program leaders and other youth-serving professionals.

Two of the YAB's goals directly address Children's Colorado's desire to serve the community in these ways:

  1. Raise the awareness of child and adolescent mental health issues in the communities we serve by creating a project each year that will support social change.
  2. Develop the leadership and advocacy skills of our youth.

With this toolkit, we hope to share with you a version of the projects, which we have come to refer to as "actions." The actions represent the work done by the YAB and brought forth to the public. We have found them to be impactful for the YAB members who created them, and feedback tells us they are impactful in our communities as well.

Mental health awareness actions

The actions in this toolkit are intended to help address two goals:

  1. To normalize conversations about mental wellness. If we are going to be effective at minimizing the harm done by mental illness to individuals and communities, we need to have working language for what makes us healthy. The language we have inherited is often dismissive or shaming of individuals experiencing emotional distress or behavioral challenges and those with cognitive impairments. We can challenge this language in ways that are proactive, positive and engaging.
  2. To practice the self-expression and listening that these conversations require, knowledge of facts around mental wellness is only half the equation. We need to be willing and effective as people who express and as people who listen. The ability to self-express, tolerate functional levels of vulnerability and listen effectively to others is not merely a "checklist of skills." Relationship requires practice, as does finding one's authentic voice.

Note: These actions are designed to stimulate thought, action and interaction around mental wellness in ways that are structured and contained. Rather than trying to discuss mental illness diagnoses, this toolkit takes a strength-based perspective. It encourages the openness, willingness and vulnerability that discussing mental health requires. If we can practice teaching relational skills and fostering self-expression, youth experiencing mental health challenges will have tools for expressing and listening.

The role of the adult facilitator

Adults can serve youth through at least three primary roles.

  1. Facilitator: You guide and support youth in ways that help to draw out their experience and expertise.
  2. Mentor: You get to know participants on a personal level, learn their goals and coach them in developing the skills and attitudes needed to fulfill those goals. You also model behaviors, approaches and attitudes in every aspect of your work with youth.
  3. Partner: You are invested in the outcomes for youth and the program, and use your strengths and capacities and encourage youth to contribute their strengths and capacities as well.

To foster the growth of young advocates, we have found a few skills to be invaluable, skills that we would like to see in anyone facilitating discussions of mental health and illness. These skills are most effective when they are modeled rather than only taught.

  • Develop knowledge, attitudes and skills around mental wellness. Get your own questions answered. When it comes to mental wellness, be more curious than afraid. Be hungry for the facts. Be open to the different ways those facts play out in individual cases. Know what mental health supports are available to you as a group leader, and where your comfort level is with hearing about others' emotional challenges. Who are your supports if a youth confides troubling information?
  • Create a context of safety. Often, the "shutdown" around discussing mental wellness issues is sensible. If I will be judged or socially shunned for saying what I’m feeling or thinking, my silence is protective. If I am somewhere that is emotionally safe, however, I will be more willing to speak my mind. Encourage a policy of ascribing bravery to speaking aloud. Model, after youth share publicly, how it looks and sounds to validate a young person taking the risk of being seen. In the context of mental wellness, the safety to self-express will tend to allow your youth to discuss challenges before they become a crisis.
  • Self-express readily and sensibly. Many young people have had experiences that cause them not to feel safe expressing themselves. They might have been sensitive to dismissive remarks that tell them they're not _____ enough. This tendency to self-invalidate arises even in high-functioning families, and can be a product of the adolescent's increased focus on social norms with peers, conflicts in the family system, unchallenged habits of thought and/or an anxious disposition. Other youth, conversely, may speak impulsively, which tends to obstruct communication. What makes us effective as communicators? For some, it's stepping up; for others, it's stepping back.
  • Embrace the process. Product comes later. Reflect to the youth what is interesting/good/moving about what they express, rather than suggesting improvements or corrections. Encourage collaboration, and teens pointing out the similarities and differences (respectfully stated) between their various expressions. Suggestions for taking projects public are included in this toolkit, because we stack on the success of empowering individual expression by building group cohesion.

Using this youth mental health toolkit

This toolkit is made up of five primary "actions" that can be facilitated in succession, or could be implemented independently in classroom or community-based settings. We often refer to the activities herein as "actions" to emphasize that we are empowering our youth to learn to advocate and to create change, not just guide them through a classroom-type activity. We recommend that the opening and closing actions (Preparing for Actions and Reflection and Closing) are facilitated as bookends, no matter how many other actions you facilitate between them.

Depending on your group's time availability, you may then guide your youth through as many of the middle actions (Actions 1, 2 and 3) as you like. There is an additional "extension activity" (Action 4) that a facilitator or teacher can use with the primary actions to create a broader dialogue around social and emotional health in your school or community. If you choose to implement Extension Action 4, wait until that longer-term project is complete before leading the Reflection and Closing.

These activities are intended to be used with youth in grades 8-12.

Each activity includes the following:

  • Background: Provides a brief rationale for the approach to the lesson.
  • Activity objectives: Specifies target skills and emotional goals for each activity.
  • Supplies required: Details the supplies needed to facilitate the activity.
  • Procedure: Includes the steps to facilitating the activity; steps are numbered. Any additional details about an activity, or specific points that can be made to facilitate a conversation around the topic are offered as suggestions and indicated by a letter or numeral bullet. Approximate time guidelines are given for sections within each activity, with an estimated 60 minutes allotted for each activity. Words in italics are suggested talking points that a facilitator could say/ask and words in regular font include directions to the facilitator.
  • Common challenges: We have found that certain activities tend to bring up specific kinds of challenges. Describes common pitfalls and potential solutions are discussed.
  • For more information: Provides websites that contain information that can support the specific activity.

Access the Youth Action Board Mental Health Toolkit

Download the full Youth Action Board School Toolkit (.pdf).

Please provide your contact information below if you’d be willing to share feedback about this toolkit: