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When it Comes to Mental Health Vitality, UCHS Students Learn To "Be the Change"

See Koran Bolden, Michael Simmons and Dr. Sharonica Hardin-Bartley discuss the Be the Change initiative and student mental health in the above powerful interview with Jasmine Huda on Fox 2’s "The Pulse of St. Louis."


By Nancy Cambria
Director of Communications

This spring, students at University City High School worked to address one of the more devastating effects of a global pandemic: its harm to student mental healthBe the Change from Yard sign

The result was a dynamic school campaign called “Be the Change.” Led by youth motivational speaker Koran Bolden and done in partnership with students and staff, Be the Change strived to help students understand that they could take action to better their well-being and mental health despite many factors outside of their control.

Be the Change was timed to prepare students for the summer months when most don’t have the safety net of teachers and school-based services and may be challenged with difficult decisions and home situations that can impact physical and mental health. The past year was tough and demanded action and empowerment for our students, said Gary Spiller, executive director of student services and innovation.

“Our students are smart and resilient, but they are also emotionally tired. The demands on them, the worries, and the trauma regarding COVID and world events call for special attention to their wellness. They needed tools and support to empower them, particularly over the summer,” Spiller said.

As part of that effort, the high school conducted its first-ever wellness fair on May 20 in the school cafeteria during lunchtime, complete with snacks, Be the Change T-shirts and bags, a DJ, and Bolden as the emcee. The upbeat event enabled students to visit community organizations that offered resources such as summer jobs, mental and medical health services, student wellness activities, and food and housing support to ensure basic needs. Traffic was heavy at all of the information booths, and students came away with brochures, phone numbers and referrals. 

“Seeing all of these tragedies, such as the shootings in Buffalo, what happened in Texas - we are seeing this in the media around us everyday. It can be very very burdensome. It can make it feel like the weight of the world is on our shoulders because this is the world that we are inheriting.” - UCHS Senior Michael Simmons

COVID-19 continues to harm humans and disrupt lives. It has taken a particular toll on youth mental health. Hospitals nationwide report alarming rates of suicidal ideation and emergency mental health hospitalizations of children and teens.

The issue is complex, but tied to a sense of helplessness, trauma among COVID-19 victims and its loved ones, and social isolation during the first year of COVID-19. At University City Schools, leaders also recognize a “double pandemic” of both COVID-19 and systemic racism affecting students and staff. Research and data show that COVID-19 disparately harmed Black and brown communities and those living in segregated and impoverished neighborhoods. Impacts included anxiety and uncertainty in a country grappling with climate change, extremism and gun violence targeting students, teachers, schools, churches, synagogues and other places where people gather to build humanity.

And yet, talking about mental health and getting help when needed remains a stigma among many young people and adults in the African American community. Bolden, who is invited to speak to thousands of urban students every year about mental health, said such conversations can be considered taboo. Bolden is a successful music producer and an author. He lost a brother to gun violence when he was 9. And yet, he said, as an African American male, he was reluctant to get professional mental health treatment, even though he knew he was suffering from severe anxiety. It was not until COVID-19 hit that he took a big step and began therapy – a decision, he said, that was life transforming.

“I want to let students know it’s OK to not be OK,” Bolden said. “But there’s a flip side to that as well. It’s also not OK for things to say the same.” 

In May, Bolden spoke individually with UCHS freshman, sophomore and junior classes about a positive mindset and how they can drive change not only in their school, but in their personal relationships and their own motivation. Part of the work of being the change is first making important changes in how you see yourself and how you interact with others, he said. When Bolden speaks with youth, he breaks the ice with fun. From there, he talks about how he wants them to be bold about themselves. He encourages young people to not let fear of what others think of them and their own doubts hold them back in reaching for dreams. He discusses particular social emotional skills to set boundaries with negative individuals without creating conflict. He discusses his theory of rock, paper, scissors (also the title of his book). Part of that involves knowing when to cut ties from negative or damaging influences, without “cutting yourself” in the process by losing your temper or worse. 

Bolden also met with the high school’s Restorative Practices Class, a group of students who are learning the social science of conflict resolution and creating positive change based on equal communication, building relationships and repairing harm. During that class, Bolden opened up about his own struggle with anxiety and his experience of going to a therapist. Students immediately responded with their own examples of how hard it is to talk about mental health and to follow through with getting help. 

Bolden praised the students in the class, but he said he wasn’t surprised given what they are going through at this period in history. He considers this a catalyst that can “fortify our character and our dreams and visions” for large institutional change. 

“The students are speaking like I never heard them speak,” he said. “Our students are now taking responsibility for their own actions, their own mental health and their own education. I see this as a great opportunity to be able to transform what education looks like and to really figure out what’s working and what’s not working in an underserved urban community.”

Be the Change also lets students know they are not isolated or alone, said Superintendent Sharonica Hardin-Bartley.

“That sense of community – that sense of togetherness – is really what Be the Change is also about,” Hardin-Bartley said. “We need to destigmatize mental health and, again, make it OK and make it something that is not a negative. I think it is strength. I think it is courage.”

Be the Change 2022 - Project Restore collage - Auditorium

Be the Change 2022 - Project Restore collage Wellness Fair Cafeteria