Meet the Maryland teens helping classmates deal with mental health struggles during the pandemic

Within the past year, fewer than 14% of school-age kids received mental health services. Students at one high school in Maryland are trying to fix that.
/ Source: TODAY

During the coronavirus pandemic, it's no secret that many kids are struggling with their mental health. In fact, some 70% of teens believe that depression is a major issue among people their age.

That's why students at Winters Mill High School in Westminster, Maryland, have launched a peer advocacy club called "Falcons of Strength" to help classmates who may be dealing with anxiety or other mental health problems and to spread positivity and hope.

TODAY's Sheinelle Jones sat down with some of these young heroes to learn more about the program for the first segment in a new TODAY series called Mental Health and America's Kids, in collaboration with the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

"I feel disconnected. Mostly, I was kind of like, 'I feel alone,'" Winters Mill student Diana Flores, 17, said.

When her school shut down in March, she said, "It was definitely an adjustment, not just for those big conversations but for the little conversations, as well."

Michael Brown, the principal at Winters Mill, also noticed "the big problem," he said. "Mental health ... it's been attacking our teens."

That's where students involved in Falcons of Strength come in.

Formed two years ago, the group is now about 50 members strong. The students are trained to address mental health issues and support their peers, providing resources and friendship to those who are struggling.

Now, the group is more important than ever.

"People that might not have someone directly at home to turn to might recognize us, might know that we could connect them to someone that they could be able to talk to or be a friend to them," one of the Falcons, Lily Ketterman, told Sheinelle.

"A lot of kids will find it kind of scary to talk to adults," she added.

Conor Doyle, another student involved in the program, added, "I feel like a lot of students, they would be a lot more comfortable opening up to students."

During the pandemic, the club asked the student body and faculty to share positive messages. Hundreds rose to the challenge, many sharing famous quotes from world leaders or other inspiring sayings.

Fewer than 14% of school-age kids received any mental health treatment within the past year, according to a recent study. And that could have a big impact on their long-term success, said Angela Glymph, Ph.D., who works with teen empowerment organization Peer Health Exchange.

"I don't think we can fully expect young people to be successful in their academic achievement if we don't address the social and emotional factors that we know impacts their ability to achieve," she said.

The news of the program also led Headspace, a popular mindfulness app that offers hundreds of guided meditation exercises, to give each student a free year of its services. The company is also offering free access to all K-12 teachers, administrators and support staff through its Headspace for Educators program.

And at Winters Mill, the Falcons of Strength are already making a difference, students say.

"I feel like this program has had many impacts, like positive impacts on kids' life," another student, Odalis Ramirez, said. "It has helped them through a lot. Like just like the positive energy that we give out to them, it's great."

"There is work to be done for future generations," Diana added. "We have to let these people know that it's okay to talk about mental health. It's okay to speak on what you are going through."

Mental Health and America’s Kids is in collaboration with The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.