by Jessica Zimmer and was published in the Napa Valley Register on May 9, 2022
The Teen Council, which serves as mental health advocates in their schools and communities, is accepting applications for new members until May 15, with interviews set for June and acceptances for July.
Members hold discussions about mental health issues and organize wellness events for Teens Connect, a program of Mentis for youth ages 12 through 20. Both groups are organized under the umbrella of Mentis, a nonprofit organization dedicated to mental health that serves Napa Valley residents.
“Mentis’ Teen Council members run empowerment clubs on their school campuses, provide peer counseling and referral to mental health resources, and promote volunteerism and civic engagement. Most importantly, they offer their insights, observations and unique perspectives to Mentis’ ongoing program development with a focus on caring for self, others, and the community,” said Jeni Olsen, founder of Teens Connect and prevention director at Mentis.
Kate Zarate, 18 and a senior at Napa High School, said being a member of the Teen Council taught her to understand others and not expect too much.
“Everyone is different. We should give people their own boundaries and spaces,” Zarate said.
Zarate, who wants to become a social worker, said she values Teen Council’s emphasis on diversity in all aspects: race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identity.
“It’s great that the Teen Council is made up of people of different ages and from a variety of backgrounds. We have meetings on the first Tuesday of every month. This helps us check in with one another. We also talk about how to reach out to teens throughout Napa Valley,” said Zarate.
Sophia Stanfield, 17 and a senior at St. Helena High School, said joining the Teen Council inspired her to start St. Helena High School’s Mental Health and Wellness Club.
“This spring, the club held a suicide prevention training for members. We hope to save lives and influence the next generation of mental health professionals,” said Stanfield.
Stanfield added being in the Teen Council taught her how to keep an open mind.
“Before, I found it really hard to ask for help. Now, I helped create a place where love and trust are valued. I and others have an immediate safe haven,” said Stanfield.
Valuing technology, culture, and togetherness
Social media helps Teens Connect reach out to the greater teen community in Napa Valley. In 2020 and 2021, Teen Council members held weekly wellness workshops on Zoom to create space for social connection. They also posted positive material on Instagram and other outlets.
“Since we’re coming back to in-person events, we can have gatherings again. Doing so much online taught us a lot. The Teen Council is better equipped with different ways to start conversations about mental health,” said Zarate.
Zarate said a common topic in conversations is culture. Teens Connect represents teens of many different backgrounds, including youth of color and LGBTQ youth.
“The Teen Council addresses how to discuss the issues facing the Latinx community of Napa County. We explore ways for us to contribute to solutions. Listening to one another teaches us how to share our voices,” said Zarate.
Stanfield said a benefit of the Teen Council is that it has helped students from the northern and southern parts of the Valley connect.
“We have members all the way up at Calistoga High School to all the way down at American Canyon High School. The meetings get teens out of their comfort zone. We hold picnics, do volunteer work, or even do things as simple as play trivia games. After these two hard years, it’s such a relief to be social again,” said Stanfield.
The history behind Teen Council
Teens Connect was founded in 2017, after Napa lost two young teens to suicide the year before. The organization had a goal of creating safe spaces to amplify youth voices. The group then decided to also promote the mental health and wellness of teens throughout Napa Valley.
“Our focus was on teaching youth how to care for themselves and others,” said Olsen.
In 2017, Olsen founded Teens Connect as a nonprofit organization, with youth representation from Napa County high schools. The first Teen Council was composed of 12 members from different high schools. They wrote the group’s bylaws and established many of its activities focused on mental health and wellness.
Also, in 2017, Teens Connect established a partnership with Mentis. Together, the organizations began to provide a continuum of support for youth in Napa Valley. The programs ranged from wellness activities and suicide prevention to free therapy for middle school and high school students in Napa Valley Unified School District.
By 2020, the Teen Council had expanded to include members from eight high schools in Napa County, as well as Napa Valley College. In July of 2020, Mentis officially welcomed Teens Connect and the Teen Council onto its roster of programs. The groups are now run within the prevention division at Mentis.
Nyah McWilliams, prevention specialist with Mentis, joined the nonprofit at age 20 to work with Teens Connect.
Before coming to Mentis, McWilliams served as a campus supervisor for Napa Valley Unified School District for close to four years. McWilliams said the Teen Council amplifies youth voices so that adults in the community can better understand their needs and perspectives.
“There can be judgment, especially in the teen years. Teens Connect creates space for community. You get to make friends from different schools and explore your identity,” said McWilliams.
McWilliams said that Teen Council prides itself on diversity and inclusion. The group invites applications from candidates involved in a variety of clubs and hobbies.
“It’s great to have Teen Council members who can share what they learn about mental health with peers. That helps break the stigma. Many people experience stress, depression, and anxiety at different points in their life,” said McWilliams.
Mariana Diaz, 20 and a sophomore at Napa Valley College, said two of the most important things being a Teen Council member taught her were how to be a part of a team and create connections within the community.
Diaz valued achieving goals like developing Bridging the Years, a Teens Connect program to partner teens with older adults for social connection.
Diaz said being a part of Teens Connect helped her succeed in two subsequent positions. These were project assistant at Rainbow Action Network, a group of LGBTQIA+ people and allies that creates programs for families under First 5 Napa Network, and art assistant with the Napa Rail Arts District (RAD).
One of Diaz’s duties as an art assistant for RAD was to orient members of the Teen Council who volunteered to paint “Our RAD Wall.” This is a space in downtown Napa where young people between 12 and 21 can create murals to express themselves and bring positive messages to the community.
“Being a member of the Teen Council showed me that with time and dedication, teens can work cooperatively to achieve goals that touch on and go beyond raising awareness about mental health. I want to become a K-12 teacher. I look forward to developing activities to support the mental health of myself, my colleagues, my students, their parents, and the community,” said Diaz.
To learn more about the Teen Council and apply to join, email McWilliams at email@example.com.