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Wisconsin high school students advocate for better mental health

a high school student sitting in an auditorium
Courtesy of Nathan Zirk
High school student Nathan Zirk talks about ways he's dealt with his mental health struggles.

Last month, the state Office of Children’s Mental Health (OCMH) presented its annual briefing. They highlighted alarming statistics over the past five years which include 10% of teens attempting suicide and nearly half of LGBTQ+ youth considering suicide. During the briefing, two high school students shared their perspectives on mental health through personal experience, culture and education.

a woman standing
Courtesy of Samera Osman
High school student Samera Osman is a mental health advocate.

Samera Osman is a student at Reagan High School. She helps support other students at her school’s mental health support program. Osman details why she became a mental health advocate: "Primarily due to my community members and just growing up in a household where mental health wasn't really valued."

Osman is Somali and was born in Ethiopia. She says she had a happy childhood, but in her culture "mental health is just something that's not really seen."

"A lot of people think that having any sort of mental illness, whether it be depression or anxiety, is something that's not real and people should easily get over it because they should be able to control themselves," she says.

In high school, Osman started to notice the mental health of her peers. Then she reflected on her own mental health concerns. "At a certain point I also started struggling, but in ways of academic and I felt pressured. At times I felt the need to take care of myself."

She began researching mental health. That's what led to her passion for helping others through school groups like Hope Squad, which is a peer-to-peer suicide prevention group.

"As people, we can connect through taking care of ourselves and our community members and being there for them," she says.

High school student Nathan Zirk shares his experience.

Nathan Zirk is a senior at North Crawford High School in Soldiers Grove. Zirk's mental health hit a low point in August 2022 while dealing with societal expectations in everyday life. That's why he joined Sources of Strength, a school-based suicide prevention program. He found relief in writing, which led him to self-publish seven poetry books.

"All of my struggles, when I wrote them down it felt like there was a pressure lifted off," he says. "That's one of the biggest things I think I realized coming out of all of my journey is that there are healthy ways to handle things. When I would self-harm, it would feel good for the moment but then it wouldn't feel good on the long-term."

One of his books is called Texts I Never Sent, which he dedicated to people that want to share how they're feeling, but keep it to themselves. Another title, Behind Her Eyes, is about healing.

"It's where I really took a turn for the better because there were a lot of things going on behind the scenes but I was slowly, very slowly, starting to get back to a decent place," says Zirk.

Zirk connected with the OCMH after a Sources of Strength meeting about the best ways to approach improving mental health. Sources of Strength uses a "wheel" as a model for support. The wheel consists of eight parts: physical health, mental health, family support, positive friends, spirituality, generosity, healthy activities and mentors.

"If you have more spots on your wheel filled, technically you're in a better spot mentally," he says.

Zirk says the wheel works for some people, but he found it difficult to meet some of the criteria.

"I realized I don't necessarily need to fill the entire wheel at one time," he says. "That's when I kind of realized that other people are probably looking through the same lens as I am and looking at this colorful wheel thinking that they need to fill this in and that they're not good enough."

Zirk is continuing his work with program counselors and mentors to improve youth mental health programs.

"After the annual briefing I genuinely felt in my heart that I had hope for Wisconsin and my community. I feel like we're taking the right steps. We just need to make sure we keep our eye on the goal," he says.

Eddie is a WUWM news reporter.
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