Monday, May 20, 2024

Images on the CYC Youth Headspace website are meant to be “joyful,” said Nina Berg of Flagg Street Studio.

A group of Cambridge teenagers is tackling growing mental health needs among their peers by launching a website offering their own choices about ways to deal with emotional problems, including suggestions, encouragement and a place to communicate without shame. The Cambridge Youth Council began distributing stickers this month at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School depicting characters they call the “Well-Beings” that they hope will direct teens to the website, the CYC Youth Headspace.

The 16-member council is a subcommittee of the city’s Family Policy Council. Each year the high school students choose work areas that present urgent needs affecting young people; this year they selected mental health as one, partly after seeing the results of a Cambridge Youth Health Survey administered to high school and middle school students in May 2022.

The survey results showed that although some mental health markers have improved, the percentage of high school students reporting significant depression, self-harm, fears for their safety and race and gender discrimination increased to their highest levels since 2012. Among middle school students, depression and self-harm decreased between 2021 and 2022, but the percentage who stayed home from school because of safety fears reached its highest level since 2012. The proportion of middle school students who reported racial discrimination tripled between 2021 and 2022, and gender discrimination reports rose by 50 percent.

After hearing the survey results from staff of the Cambridge Public Health Department, youth council members “wanted to create a campaign that would serve as a way for youth to talk about their mental health challenges,” Family Policy Council executive director Nancy Tauber said. They also wanted the solutions and resources offered to young people to be chosen by youths, not adults.

The Cambridge Youth Council, seen in a cycheadspace.org image, chose mental health as an urgent need affecting young people. Assistant city manager for human services Ellen Semonoff is at center.

In that spirit, council members wanted the images on the website to be “joyful” and “youthful,” said Nina Berg of Flag Street Studio, who collaborated with students to design the website. They chose a wide range of whimsical “Well-Beings” characters because “they recognize that mental health looks different to everyone,” youth council coordinator Jared Bellot said. Tauber reported that council members said they wanted mascots “that would be cute but not childish, and the animal mascots help the campaign feel more welcoming and friendly,”

One of the five “Well-Beings” is an “self-actualizing axolotl” that can heal itself; another is a “plant lady” who advises “self-care” by getting enough sun and water; a third is a “bristly” hedgehog who needs a hug despite the bristles.

“Well-Beings” designed by Nina Berg are prominent in a Cambridge Youth Council mental wellness campaign.

The website isn’t meant to serve kids in a full-blown mental crisis, and council members are aware of the shortage of mental health providers, Bellot said. Instead, council members were “thinking about how can we be proactive about this,” he said. “What are the tools and scaffolds we need? How do we ensure that we’re caring and not waiting until we’re in a moment of heightened crisis?”

Turning away from social media

The council members decided to create a website instead of a campaign on social media because they didn’t want to “continue living on social media,” which can contribute to the problems they were trying to solve, Berg said. Am Instagram account called CRLSSecrets includes racist and threatening comments and reportedly contributed to a physical fight between two students in March that sent one to the hospital and the other to court.

Tauber said the youth council website wasn’t intended to be a response to the account.

Council members originally planned to confine the campaign to the high school, but decided to expand their effort to middle school after seeing health survey results. After teachers and administrators saw the website, they wanted it to be introduced to elementary school students as well, Tauber said. The campaign will start in the high school before school ends next month and continue in lower grades next year.

Council members decided to introduce the website to middle schools because they especially wanted younger middle schoolers to know that older high school students were looking out for them, Berg said.

“They are trying to change a culture among young people about how they care for each other,” she said.

The website is at cycheadspace.org.