By Cass Poncelow, Lauren Kiel and Bethany Condon | October 2020
Tragedy after tragedy left the northern Colorado community of Fort Collins reeling in 2015, and at Poudre High School, we felt like we were at the epicenter for many of these losses. The Fort Collins community struggled for answers, with many feeling hopeless. Tragic student deaths had parents and educators at a loss for ways to support adolescents in our community. Many had no idea how to explain suicide completions at the sixth-grade level or were fearful that talking about suicide would cause suicide contagion in high school students.
The one common thread in all of this was that there was a lack of resources and education around mental health, and we needed to figure out how to engage students, families and educators in difficult, yet critical, conversations with adolescents.
The mental health team at Poudre High School, composed of school counselors, school social workers and mental health specialists, deliberated extensively about how we could further this conversation and better equip our community to support adolescents. Parents and community mental health providers were, likewise, eager to join this conversation.
Out of these months of collaboration and conversation came Mental Health Matters, a communitywide adolescent mental health education event. Since its inception in 2015, Mental Health Matters has become an annual event, gaining in both recognition and attendance. Over the past five years, the event has attracted approximately 500 community members, parents, educators and youth each year. Structured like a conference, this three-hour evening event offers parents, students, educators and community members a wide variety of breakout sessions. The conference structure generally consists of three 50-minute timeslots, each with 10–12 session choices. Sessions address a wide range of mental health topics affecting our youth: suicide prevention, coping with loss, self-harm, anxiety, effects of social media on mental health, LGBTQ issues and many others.
To develop the session lineup, we focus on what issues are currently most prevalent with students and which community organizations or local professionals might wish to participate. We found that community members and district staff are enthusiastic about creating a successful and impactful event. By focusing on Mental Health Matters becoming a community education event, the original team of school counselors was soon surrounded by a team of support staff, district personnel, parents and community leaders eager to help – from procuring coffee donations to securing presenters to setting up chairs on the big night.
Diverse Topics, Local Expertise
Like all good things, Mental Health Matters has evolved. One of the strengths of the evening has become the diversity of topic areas and utilization of local expertise. School resource officers have presented on vaping or social media. A local professor spoke about adolescent brain development. A parenting expert talked about using humor to connect with adolescents. Spanish-speaking social workers have provided meaningful content to our monolingual families. We have found that many local therapists and nonprofits are eager to present to an audience hungry for mental health information and strategies. This past year’s event featured a keynote speaker from Mental Health Colorado, the state’s preeminent organization in mental health advocacy and policy work. It also included a community resource fair in the common areas where additional community organizations shared resources with attendees. The school district vets these community resources in advance and collects survey data from participants after the event each year. This data helps us determine the quality of the presentations and provides feedback about ways people learned about the event and other topics of value for future events.
Originally, most presentations were geared toward parents/guardians of high school and middle school students. However, recent programming has also addressed parents/guardians of elementary school students.
By partnering with our district professional development program, we can offer continuing education credit for district employees who attend. As a result, we’ve seen attendance from teachers, paraprofessionals, custodians, bus drivers and more. Providing education for all district employees allows them to be part of helping students with mental health needs. Sessions are open to all. We often see parents and their children attending together – an easy window into a further conversation on the drive home or later in the week.
Fortunately, the overall expenses for the annual event are minimal. Although we produce posters and programs for the event, we save by marketing through email, social media, local radio and e-newsletters. All district schools distribute fliers and information about the event through parent emails and on their websites. We also provide fliers to presenters and participants in the community resource fair to distribute to their networks. Our data collection has shifted from paper evaluations to a QR code, allowing attendees to provide online feedback on the sessions. Presenters and resource fair participants receive a gift bag with snacks, bottled water and a thank-you card and gift, usually written and created by our student leaders. We provide pizza for the volunteer student leaders and dinner for presenters.
Leveraging Student Talent
We try to involve students in the event wherever possible. Peer counseling programs from across the district provide student leaders to serve as room hosts, introduce speakers, direct attendees to classrooms and pass out programs. Peer counselors at each of the schools receive extensive training and recognize their significant responsibility to educate other students and our community.
One of these students, who is a survivor of a suicide attempt, has presented at Mental Health Matters the past few years, even returning from college to share her story and discuss the importance of education around suicide prevention. Other high school students participate by designing the Mental Health Matters logo, manufacturing presenter gifts, printing marketing materials and distributing fliers to local businesses to advertise the event. By engaging so many different segments of our community, we’ve been able to open dialogue about a huge variety of mental health issues facing our youth.
We’ve also added the Peer Summit, which provides a daylong training for student peer counselors. This involves many of the same Mental Health Matters community partners, who educate the student peer counselors on a variety of mental health topics they can use at their schools. Breakouts and teambuilding throughout the day create opportunities for collaboration among seven different high schools. Past themes have included suicide prevention, school safety and stress management. We are committed to the reality that community mental health education must include and be driven by the students affected by it.
Several years ago, one of our student leaders brought a parent to us who was trying to decide which Mental Health Matters sessions to attend. With tears in his eyes, the parent said, “One of the kids who committed suicide was our neighbor. I haven’t talked to my son about it because I don’t know how.” We were able to direct him to a couple of sessions, and at the end of the night, his gratitude was overwhelming. We were struck by how many people, especially outside of our field, simply need the education and resources to engage in these conversations. Too often our communities and schools have limited the conversation about mental health to students and parents in treatment centers. A proactive, community-centered approach allows us to remind students and families that being mentally healthy is just as critical as being physically healthy, and we give them the tools and resources to address their mental health. Our hope is that Mental Health Matters continues to be an engaging, evolving event for the Fort Collins community for many years to come.
Cass Poncelow is a school counselor at Poudre High School in Fort Collins, Colo. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Lauren Kiel is a school counselor at Poudre High School and Bethany Condon is a school counselor at Fort Collins High School, also in Fort Collins, Colo.