When the biggest advocates for student mental health are students

Last October, to commemorate Mental Health Awareness Week, a group of students from Sacopee Valley High School in Hiram, Maine, created Hope Yearly Meeting. The board, which was shaped like an enormous tulip and displayed in the lobby, was covered with anonymous teenage aspirations. Some students hoped to pass driver’s ed or have a successful playoff season. Others expressed more complicated wishes. “Be more happy than angry,” one student wrote. Another wrote: “I hope people are kinder and more mature.”

Camryn Baron, 17, created the board as founder of Sacopee’s Yellow Tulip Team, a student group dedicated to mental health. “It’s an outlet for some kids to outwardly express and vocalize something that’s bothering them,” she said.

Ms. Baron has struggled with an eating disorder, anxiety and depression; She is bisexual and hasn’t always felt supported. “The things that a lot of us dismiss or struggle with here — being able to share them with other people is validating,” she said.

Sacopee’s Yellow Tulip team is one of approximately 150 such clubs supported by the Yellow Tulip Project, a nonprofit mental health education and advocacy organization. Co-founded in 2016 by Julia Hansen, a high school student in Maine who had lost her two best friends to suicide, the nonprofit works to destigmatize mental illness and help students prioritize their emotional well-being.

In Sacopee Valley, the club plays upbeat music to welcome students every Monday and shares mental health information through morning announcements. Each fall she plants a Hope Garden (500 tulip bulbs this year) and will celebrate the flowers’ resilience in the spring with a youth wellness day with workshops and activities. At the group’s regular meetings, students can discuss stress reduction strategies, as well as homophobia, socioeconomic inequality, and various stigmas that many teens experience in their conservative-leaning rural community.

In recent years, nonprofit organizations that support school mental health clubs have found high demand for their programs. The increase is the result of two phenomena: the growing number of teenagers struggling with mental health and the shortage of resources to help them. As schools look for solutions, it is often students who lead the effort.

“When we think about mental health, we’re not just talking about crisis intervention,” said Lisa Padilla, a social and behavioral scientist at the RAND Corporation, who has studied mental health clubs. “Peer organizations are creating an environment in school that says, ‘We value your well-being and we know that’s part of who you are as a whole person.’ That message goes a long way toward helping students feel safe and empowered to talk about their own needs.”