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These high schoolers are leading conversations in mental health

Lewiston High School students are prioritizing mental health with their Be Kind to Your Mind program.

LEWISTON, Maine — Lewiston may be one of Maine's larger municipalities, but for some kids from the city, it felt more like a close-knit community growing up.

To help those kids serve their community, the city formed the Lewiston Youth Advisory Committee in 2001. High school students can meet with each other, share their opinions on municipal decisions, and have the opportunity to meet with city leaders.

There is an application and interview process before students join the council. Elissa Nadeau, the current chair, said she wanted to get involved because her sister was part of the council before she graduated last spring.

“I really liked how involved she was and how she got to go and make the community a better place to be," Nadeau said. “I wanted to show everyone I can lead and be that role model they need."

Nadeau, Vice Chair Ava Golder, and freshman Zara Bimbi have been closely involved with the council's newest program: Be Kind to Your Mind.

“We can’t just let things go by and pretend they never existed, because they do," Bimbi said.

Credit: NCM

The council held its first Be Kind to Your Mind meeting last month. Speakers included city officials, police officers, and mental health professionals. It was an open conversation for not students but also adults in the community.

“I just loved seeing everyone get together and have an open conversation about touchy subjects," Golder said. “And everyone was very comfortable with talking to each other about problems in the community we saw.”

These high schoolers said they have seen a recent push by teachers and school staff to normalize mental health education in the classroom.

“Even when I was a freshman, we really didn’t touch on [mental health] in any of my classes, and now junior and senior year, a lot more teachers are more open and let students know they can reach out about anything," Nadeau said.

These students said two reasons that helped drive more mental health conversations in school were the social effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the popularity of social media.

All current Maine students lost at least a year of in-person learning because of the pandemic, which posed a threat to key social growth people have during their time in school.

Now that kids are back in the classroom and social media apps like Instagram are used by many students, these students add cyberbullying has been common. 

The culmination of these issues and others helped change the educational landscape. Health classes now build mental health learning tools into the curriculum. 

Credit: NCM

The Lewiston Youth Advisory Council is also giving these students a voice to normalize mental health conversations.

“As youth, we’re a big part of Lewiston, we’re a big part of the community, so we should do something. it can’t always just be the adults, we should say something, we should rise up and say this is not right and make a change," Bimbi added.

Nadeau said Lewiston High School has QR codes posted around the halls so students can learn about more mental health resources without having other students or teachers know.

The Council is hoping to plan other mental health events in the future to continue the conversation with classmates and community members.

“If we can’t talk about it, how can we teach future generations to be open about it," Nadeau asked.

If you or anyone you know is struggling with mental health, the 2-1-1 crisis hotline is available. Or reach out to NAMI Maine for more information.

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