How Horizon is encouraging resilient youth through relationships and community resources

Be safe. Be smart. Make good choices.

It’s a phrase you might have seen somewhere around Lynchburg—most likely with rainbow letters on a yard sign.

Those signs are just one of the ways Horizon Behavioral Health is trying to encourage the area’s students throughout the year to be resilient—especially when one in five young people are struggling with their mental health.

Even before the pandemic, there has been a steady rise in depression and anxiety among children between the ages of 6–17. In fact, according to research nearly 20 percent of children and young people in the U.S. have a mental, emotional, developmental, or behavioral disorder.

“We’re not lacking in referrals,” said Horizon’s Director of School Based Services Lesli Sedwick. “Talking about mental health isn’t taboo anymore. Principals and teachers aren’t hesitating to reach out if they see a student is struggling.”

But struggling—or processing trauma—can look different depending on the person, according to Sedwick.

“When we think of trauma, we usually think of abuse or the big things,” she said. “But anxiety and depression or social isolation can also be considered trauma. Post-pandemic, many students are learning to be in the ‘real world’ again. That’s been difficult for all ages.”

“We also as humans thrive off structure,” added Prevention Program Manager Januwaa Davis. “During the pandemic, all of that was taken from us and we had no control over it. While we do have some of that [control] back, there’s still that looming thought in your mind that it can happen again.”

While in the past signs of trauma may have been overlooked, training has become crucial. Last year, 60 educators from the area virtually attended the National Creating Trauma-Sensitive Schools Conference. The conference is considered the largest training of its kind and provides attendants with practical tools and resources.

This year, Horizon offered five scholarships for educators to join the conference in-person back in February while 10 people were able to join virtually again.

“It’s about understanding what students are now dealing with,” Davis said about the conference. “It’s really looking at things that can be applied in classrooms by teachers, but also district-wide.”

But Davis said they didn’t want teachers and administrators to forget what they learned as the school year gets busier and more stressful. Horizon hosts quarterly educator meetings where people from across the districts can meet and share best practices—even offer support.

Teachers aren’t the only ones trying to make a difference or taking advantage of resources offered by Horizon. Even students are rallying together to offer support to their peers.

Healthy Youth through Prevention and Education (HYPE) Club is made up of students from EC Glass and Heritage High Schools. Students serve as a youth advisory council to the Central Virginia Addiction and Recovery Resources (CVARR) Coalition.

collage of images

Above: Resiliency Care Packages were delivered to 60 educators who participated in last year’s virtual Trauma Sensitive Schools Conference. Right: HYPE Club Member receives Key Champion Award from Central Virginia Addiction and Recovery Resources (CVARR) for her contribution to promoting substance use prevention and drug free lifestyles among her peers in Lynchburg City Schools.
Photos courtesy of Horizon Behavioral Health.

This year students focused their efforts on improving youth mental health where they identified that poor mental health could drive students toward tobacco, vaping, alcohol, and other drugs to cope.

“They really talked about how adults don’t understand their mental health,” Davis said. “When they talk about their mental health, they can get blown off by parents or they feel like the other adults in their lives are too busy to have time to help them.”

Students decided to launch their own awareness campaign focused on adults and worked with Media Partners Inc., a North Carolina–based media to help with creative development. The campaign received 30-second commercials that were featured on major television networks such as AMC, ESPN, MTV, and Travel as well as streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu.

They also helped plan the annual CHAP Youth Summit in March, which is aimed at encouraging ages 11–18 to make “healthy life choices” and become leaders in their school and community. The club even created a parent panel.

While there have been strides, Sedwick says that talking about mental health can still be taboo for some families.

“Families struggle with saying they can’t take care of their child’s needs,” she said. “We use the analogy of if your child is sick, do you say to your doctor that you don’t want them to treat your kid? It’s the same thing. When we normalize it that way, parents understand and are more receptive because ultimately they want to see their kids succeed.”

Seeing their friends succeed after seeking help has been a great motivator for students asking questions about their own mental health needs.

“We have students as young as elementary school that say, ‘You see my friend or my sibling, can I talk to you, too?’” Sedwick said. “In a way kids are referring themselves. That’s pretty resilient for a child to say they need something and take the initiative.”

Ultimately, helping children overcome mental health comes down to the importance of healthy relationships.

“If we want to help our young people, our teachers, our community—establishing relationships is what it’s all about,” Sedwick said.

“The biggest thing that we see is that children feel like they’re floating in this world alone and they don’t have a connection. You don’t have to solve anyone’s problems, but you can be an ear to listen or to encourage.”

Davis said there’s an old proverb that sums it up beautifully: relationships are to child development what location is to real estate.

“Oftentimes when things happen in our community, we ask what we are going to do,” Davis said. “But really, it’s all of us. Being intentional about relationships can mean with a family member, but it could also mean the kid who lives next door. If we did that, I think we could see a significant difference.”

To learn more about Horizon’s community resources or to seek help for you or a loved one, visit their website or call (434) 477-5000.