Last year, Mia Hayden lost a close friend to suicide.
Melanie Zhou’s mother was battling cancer. Then her school principal died of cancer.
These life-changing experiences led the two ThunderRidge High School students, with the help of classmate Rohan Nipunge, to found a nonprofit organization. Their mission is to promote and spark conversation about mental health at their school and, eventually, across the Douglas County School District.
“I think, in high school, we don’t put a lot of focus on mental health,” said Zhou, a junior. “We put a lot of focus on our accomplishments.”
The organization’s name is Oasis. Part of the students’ plan is to create a physical place of peace and tranquility at ThunderRidge that will have a counselor on site through the school day. The end goal is to have an oasis at every high school in the district.
“We are hoping our physical oasis can be a space where you focus on you and your health,” Hayden said.
‘Everyone’s experience is different’
It was nearly midnight at James H. LaRue Library in Highlands Ranch when the three students first thought of Oasis.
They had been brainstorming ideas for a DECA project.
“We had a financial literacy idea, but we realized that wasn’t the most pressing thing in our society that needed to be changed,” Zhou said. “After going through 20 ideas, we realized no one else was talking about (mental health) in our community.”
Hayden, Zhou and Nipunge see the pressure that young people face on a daily basis — keeping up with academics, sports and extracurriculars, having a plan for the future. From firsthand experience, they know how a tragedy can shake the mental health of students and teachers.
“That was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to go through,” Hayden said of the loss of her friend. “I truly believe it shaped our community. It caused me to reprioritize mental health.”
Dr. Jason Williams, pediatric psychologist and operations director for the Pediatric Mental Health Institute at Children’s Hospital Colorado, applauds the students for recognizing a need and taking action. It’s important for not only students but also teachers and adults to feel comfortable talking about mental health, he said.
“It sounds like this group of young poeple have really taken that on,” Williams said. “Schools are where kids spend a lot of time and there’s a lot of opportunity for us to help kids in that environment.”
Oasis will sell shirts in teal blue — a color of mental health awareness — with a small but powerful logo. A silhouette of mountains signifies the challenge of achieving positive mental health, the students said. A sun rising over the mountains shows that there is light at the end of the tunnel. And a compass represents the journey of mental health.
“The compass is going in two separate directions,” Zhou said. “There is no right direction for mental health. Everyone’s experience is different.”
The shirts will sell for $15. Half of the proceeds will go toward inventory and the other half will benefit existing mental health services at the school district, such as Sources of Strength, a suicide prevention program utilized by several high schools.
The students are now raising money to put their plan into action. Their estimated start-up cost is $10,000. They hope to facilitate partnerships with businesses and health organizations in the community, and generate funds through corporate sponsorships and grants. They recently won a $5,000 grant and $5,000 in vendor support from a "Shark Tank"-style competition in Lone Tree, where start-up businesses pitched their ideas and plans.
In the future, the teens plan to expand their merchandise to include socks and pop sockets, a gadget popular among high school students that attaches to the back of a cell phone. And with every purchase, they would like to include a personal note from someone who has struggled with mental health.
Oasis has the full support of Nikki Ballow, the school’s principal.
“Mental health is a huge issue,” Ballow said. “The kids do have good coping strategies — up until their breaking point.”
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