When Severna Park High School students Lauren Carlson, Parker Cross, Sabina Khan, Megan Moulsdale and Katrina Schultz united in spring 2019 to make a statement about the need for mental health awareness in their community, they had no way of predicting the momentum their advocacy would gain.
But gain momentum it did, and several months later, the grassroots movement known as Our Minds Matter has caught the attention of and brought together government officials, educators, religious leaders, parents and teens to address the growing problem of the youth mental health crisis that has been building in their community.
“It didn’t seem like anything was going to change unless someone was going to do something about it,” says Khan, who found herself moved to action after the suicide of a classmate in March. Parents and students alike were talking about the overwhelming pressures teenagers face to be perfect—to get straight A’s, to excel at sports, to get into the best colleges—and despite the overwhelming expectations, there was a lack of resources available for those who were struggling mentally and emotionally from the stress. Even worse, people didn’t take mental health struggles seriously and didn’t address them openly.
Khan reached out to the other girls and soon enough they were collaborating on how they could create real change for teenagers struggling with mental health. “Some adults think that because we’re so young, we have no idea what we’re talking about or no idea how to do it,” Moulsdale says. “But the thing is, we’re the ones who are directly affected by this.”
Although the girls were acquainted with one another, they weren’t especially close friends until this common cause drew them together. Their advocacy work commenced with a march on May 1, 2019, when hundreds of students gathered in Severna Park with signs calling for mental health to be destigmatized and offering a show of support to those who were struggling in silence. “It was difficult growing up viewing mental illness as some taboo scary thing,” says Carlson. “It’s normal and it should be talked about more.”
Our Minds Matter seeks primarily to destigmatize mental illness, opening the conversation for young people to admit when they are struggling and need help. Just as important, the group wants to see increased funding for mental health resources and real policy changes. Among those helping along the way is Delegate Heather Bagnall of Maryland’s 33rd District. “I have great admiration for the fact that they were willing to lead this and not allow the naysayers to defeat them,” Bagnall says.
Coming from a background working with youth in theater and education before she entered politics, Bagnall recognized the potential in this student-led initiative when the girls first reached out to her. “I often see that young people have great ideas, great energy, and it’s often very hard for them to find a champion who will give them a platform to be heard,” she says. “These young women were articulate and engaged and wanted to see changes in communication and how we respond to tragedy, and they wanted to make sure students are included in that process.”
Among the changes Our Minds Matter advocates is lowering or eliminating a minimum age at which students can seek help from Anne Arundel County’s Crisis Response System. As the law stands, those younger than 16 cannot seek help from Crisis Response, and students 16 and older can do so only with a parent’s permission.
Our Minds Matter is also fighting for a better ratio of guidance counselors to students so that each student has a personal relationship built on trust with their counselor. “Getting more counselors means we get to know our counselors and have that safe space and that person to go to,” Schultz explains.
The students are also talking to their peers at Severna Park and other high schools for input on a Student Bill of Rights, which Our Minds Matter is developing with Bagnall to be introduced during the next session of the Maryland General Assembly. Such rights might include a set number of mental health days, which would be recognized by schools as excused absences the same as physical illnesses.
Most important, the girls want more communication between all parties involved. As Moulsdale emphasizes, their message isn’t that educators are failing their students—far from it. Instead, they want to see better systems in place so that educators can help young people during difficult times. “When we started this movement, a lot of people in the school felt attacked and thought we were coming for them and saying they weren’t doing good enough or they weren’t doing their job enough, and that is completely untrue,” she says.
Communication between students and school officials has grown stronger in the months since Our Minds Matter started, most prominently through the formation of the Anne Arundel County Public Schools Mental Health Task Force, which was created by the Board of Education and held its first meeting in September 2019.
Additionally, all four seniors (Carlson has graduated and is away at college) serve on the Board of Education’s Mental Health Teen Advisory Board along with representatives from other county high schools. Both the teen advisory board and the task force will identify better ways to meet the mental health needs of students and make formal reports to the Board of Education in May 2020.
Even with all the political momentum they have initiated, the girls see their biggest accomplishment so far as making their peers feel comfortable opening up about their mental and emotional struggles. “Eliminating the stigma is the biggest thing, and opening the conversation,” Moulsdale says. “We want everyone to feel comfortable. . . . We want people not to be afraid to reach out so someone can be with them and tell them it’s okay not to be okay.”
“I opened up more about what I’ve been struggling with, and I’ve realized I’m completely not alone in it,” Cross says. “I’ve talked to numerous people about things I struggle with like anxiety and depression, and I was like, ‘Wow, these people are struggling with the exact same things I am. I’m not isolated in this little bubble of me versus my problems.”
Also supporting the youth movement has been the leadership and congregation of St. Martin’s-in-the-Field Episcopal Church, where the Rev. Matthew Hanisian says people have embraced the girls’ mission. Hanisian was so impressed by what the teens were doing that he nominated them for one of the inaugural Youth Service Awards presented by Governor Larry Hogan’s Office of Service and Volunteerism. Our Minds Matter became one of 13 recipients selected from among 100 applications for the awards, which were presented in August by Lieutenant Governor Boyd Rutherford.
“They’ve touched so many lives,” Hanisian says. “People have come forward and felt emboldened to speak about their own experiences.” He praises the teens for generating community discussion about an issue that’s been “kept in the darkness for so long” and for getting the attention of the adults who could implement changes. “People have listened to their arguments and said, ‘Yes, we need to so something about this’.”
In the year ahead, Our Minds Matter intends to implement change through policies and legislation, as well as provide an outlet for teenagers. A multi-school winter formal is being planned for November 30 at the Severna Park Community Center to offer a reprieve from the stress that comes from college applications, holidays, seasonal depression and end-of-the-semester academic demands.
The founders are also seeking ambassadors who can assist them in their mission and carry on the torch after they leave for college next year. Anyone who is interested in learning more can follow “Our Minds Matter” on Facebook or @ourmindsmattermvmt on Instagram, or they can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Furthering their mission on top of college applications, homework, and extracurricular activities is no small task, but the young leaders agrees that their advocacy work remains a priority. As Khan puts it, “Our Minds Matter is one of the most important things in all our lives right now.”
Story and Photos by Dylan Roche