Keeping Youth Mental Wellbeing in Mind (Part 1)

Teresa Halliday headshot

Collaborating for Community Change

Interview with Teresa Halliday (pictured), a National Council for Mental Wellbeing senior advisor, as part of the National Council’s Children, Young Adults & Families Interest Group blog series.

The role youth-adult partnerships play in supporting youth mental wellbeing is invaluable. Just ask Teresa Halliday, who oversaw the National Council’s CONNECTED program, a learning collaborative aimed at reducing youth anxiety, depression and suicide in underserved communities. We spoke with Teresa to learn more about her role, the program and the power of partnerships.

Tell us about yourself and your role at the National Council.

“As a senior advisor, I focus on issues of behavioral health, health equity and collective change. My experience spans community-based practice, academic research and national intermediary settings, where I’ve developed and implemented projects that increase access to effective health care, reduce health disparities and empower providers and communities. My areas of expertise include youth mental health and substance use efforts, biopsychosocial factors on addiction, HIV prevention, health literacy and workforce issues. And my background in anthropology fosters a cultural perspective on health and wellness, one that aims to raise a diverse multitude of voices to achieve shared impact.”

What was the vision behind CONNECTED?

“CONNECTED aimed to empower youth and facilitate youth-adult partnership resulting in community change. Together with a team of national experts, we launched a learning community that supported five community-based organizations across the country — and 20 young people from those communities — to develop meaningful partnership, enact adaptive and technical leadership, and spur change through advocating for, implementing, evaluating and sustaining novel youth-led practice.

“Youth participants took part in a customized leadership program, building advocacy skills to impact the systems and supports that affect them. Together, they designed improved service programs to increase access to and engagement of quality, appropriate care for culturally diverse, rural, LGBTQ+ and other youth populations that experience barriers to mental health supports.”

Why was involving the community integral to your work?

“Working at the community level is always important, especially when it comes to impacting mental wellbeing for LGBTQ+ youth and communities of color. We were fortunate with CONNECTED to elevate practice driven by community-defined evidence. While evidence-based practices are empirically proven to be effective, and they do garner funding needed to provide services, they are commonly developed with and tested among the dominant culture.

“It takes significant time, effort and money to create, test and publish an evidence-based practice — resources many community-based organizations do not have in excess. Yet they are creating a great impact in their communities, doing what they have tested over time and what works for the people they serve. A community’s definition of illness and wellness is shaped by culture, as well as historical and social contexts, and these elements can’t be ignored when it comes to providing the most appropriate services. To be most effective, programs and services must be grounded in the lived experience of young people, especially those who are historically underserved.”

What was your biggest takeaway from CONNECTED?

“One resounding takeaway was that relationships are everything. Effective youth-adult partnership requires vulnerability, authenticity and mutual trust and that takes patience and flexibility. It takes quality time to design together and co-create innovative solutions to better serve underserved youth. Organizations don’t always have the luxury of time for this type of activity, but funders increasingly recognize the crucial nature of such stages of development, and if it can be carved into funding streams, outcomes stand to be enriched for those who need it most.

“Once those relationships were developed, we saw that all organizational capacity-building work was elevated by youth involvement. Youth contributed to operations beyond CONNECTED projects, raised awareness about resources, helped create new processes to identify the needs of local youth and created referral pathways to meet those needs. Organizations became nimbler and swifter when responding to new community needs, even during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Professionals and their organizations must be adaptable — questioning norms and inviting a culture shift — in order to welcome new perspectives with a full seat at the table. The benefits of such change are vast.”

What should people keep in mind when supporting youth?

“That youth are experts at the table and must be invited, heard and raised up as leaders to access a truer understanding of the problem and its solutions. By sharing power in decision-making, we can empower young people to channel their voices of lived experience and find new, more inclusive approaches to improving systems of care. To be successful in this, youth should be invited into the process as early as possible and engaged by leveraging their personal strengths, adapting to their preferred communication style and respecting competing priorities and life transitions. Don’t pressure or expect young people to have all the answers to fix the problems that exist. Instead, give them meaningful opportunities to inform and make decisions about the systems of care that affect them.”

What do you hope the future of youth mental wellbeing looks like?

“Today’s youth increasingly face stressors in their daily lives, including social media pressures, mass violence, environmental anxiety and social injustice. Risks to resiliency compound the effects. Unfortunately, one social program will not undo the risks presented by multiple social determinants or environmental factors. A comprehensive and coordinated public/mental/social health approach is needed beyond the clinical setting, school and home to incorporate the sphere of existence.

“There is potential to identify and address pre-diagnosable mental health and substance use issues before a youth encounters systems that may be traumatizing (e.g., child welfare, clinical treatment, criminal legal system), but this approach is too often hindered by a lack of funding and coordination. In the future, I hope there exists a connected web of care that’s inclusive of social justice, supports trauma-informed approaches that provide welcoming and safe environments for healing and offers platforms for youth to meaningfully advise and make decisions about the systems that affect them.”