What will help fix the mental health crisis among today’s youths?

It’s all about building trustworthy relationships with teachers and peers, a panel of high school students from Colorado Springs and the Denver area said Thursday.

After surveying students without adults around, “The overall consensus showed how much students are craving an authentic relationship with their teachers,” said Doherty High School senior Dominic Langness, a member of his school’s Suicide Prevention Design Team and Wellness Design Team.

“Kids want to show their vulnerability, but teachers have to take the first step and show they can be vulnerable as well,” he said. “It begins to build trust and leads to active engagement.”

Seven students addressed a crowd of more than 100 school board members from around the state Thursday morning, during a seminar on mental health issues in schools. The event was part of the Colorado Association of School Board’s annual winter conference at The Broadmoor hotel in Colorado Springs.

The conference, which runs through Sunday, features speakers on numerous topics in education and provides training for elected school board members from the state’s 178 school districts.

Doherty student leaders determined that “we wanted to help students before there was a problem and provide them with strong relationships at school,” said student Anna Shewey.

Out of that came the idea to build a wellness center, a “chill space for students to go and de-escalate” when they’re feeling anxious, depressed or stressed.

Students obtained a grant and are working to open the center next fall. Trained students and staff would help center users calm down, figure out what they need and get assistance, whether it’s taking deep breaths, playing with a fidget gadget or speaking to a counselor.

A community event Doherty hosted last month was designed to break down the stigma of mental health awareness, Dominic said.

“To make these solutions and see progress, we need to not hold back,” he said. “We need to talk about these things freely among everyone.”

The students are on the right track, said Kathy Reed, who teaches psychology at Doherty High in Colorado Springs School District 11.

“It’s the noticing; kids want to be noticed and know somebody cares in the building,” she said.

But instead of asking, “What’s wrong?” to a student who slinks into class and puts his or her head down on the desk, a better question is “What happened?” or, “It seems like you’re having a bad day today?”

“Instead of being super engaged in our curriculum, we need to be super engaged in students as people,” Reed said. “Content and curriculum are important, but that relationship is going to motivate students.”

Today’s students are facing more mental health struggles, such as anxiety and depression, than in the past, said Tim Garland, counselor at Doherty and D-11’s counseling chair.

Students cite expectations from parents, teachers, counselors and coaches as the No. 1 issue in causing mental instability, Garland said. He also mentions a “big breakdown in the family” as a top contributing factor.

“There’s a lot of hopelessness,” he said.

Doherty leaders have been working to identify the barriers to forming effective relationships with students and staff, Reed said.

In 2014, a Doherty student died by suicide on the school campus, which was highly traumatic for staff and students, Garland said, and became the catalyst for education, awareness, positive messaging and now, deep-seated support.

“We came to realize we have to do a better job of recognizing the signs and symptoms,” Garland said.

To prevent situations from escalating to crises, some school districts are providing Youth Mental Health First Aid training, a program that explores normal adolescent development, identifies protective factors and risk factors, and gives tips on talking to teens and providing resources.

Being in nature, promoting yoga and advocating for community service are among the tactics of Morgan Davis’ chapter, which is in Wheat Ridge.

“If you feel like you’re a part of something you’ll feel better about yourself and like you have a purpose in life,” she said. “Service feels like you have a role and are doing something for the greater good.”

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.

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