Meet Fort Wayne high school students addressing the mental health of their peers

Since the beginning months of the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health has become a more talked about topic in the U.S. The CDC shares strategies for “Coping with Stress,” where you can find information on how to deal with the “stress, anxiety, grief, and worry during the COVID-19 pandemic.” 

One demographic facing higher levels of mental health challenges than they did pre-pandemic is adolescents. The number of mental health emergency room visits for youth ages 12-17 increased 31 percent during the first year of the pandemic. Data from 2021 shows more than a third of high school students report having “poor mental health.”

Fort Wayne isn’t excluded from these statistics. Malia Sanghvi, a senior at Homestead High School, says she’s witnessed her peers experiencing mental health issues stemming from the uncertainty and loneliness of the pandemic, as well as how it affects their experiences and academic performance.

“There’s always that uncertainty of never knowing if you might get COVID; you never know what might happen,” Sanghvi says. “Would you even be in school the next day? I think that that contributed to a lot of fear.” 

The Mayor's Youth Engagement Council members and supervisor Karen Richards.
To help her peers combat these challenges, Sanghvi is part of a group of Fort Wayne area high schoolers hosting a mental health symposium on April 20 for all students in grades 10-12 in the Fort Wayne Metro Area. The event, Peace of Mind and Body, will feature a full day of guest speakers and breakout sessions, where students will have the chance to learn from professionals about factors that affect mental health, as well as techniques and strategies to cope.
The group behind the event is the Mayor’s Youth Engagement Council (MYEC), a group of about 12 youth members from school districts across the city who provide a voice for Fort Wayne youth, engaging their peers, creating solutions, and completing service-learning projects. As part of this work, the MYEC hosts an annual symposium on a topic they deem important.

President of the MYEC and Wayne High School senior, Mia Sartain, says the goal of this year’s symposium on mental health is to give students more strategies for relief and connection.

Council members discuss details of their mental health symposium.
“At the beginning of this year, we decided we wanted to do a mental health symposium,” says Sartain. “We had a lot of other issues up in the air at first, but it all kind of culminated into mental health because even though we had a large focus on the environment and other topics early on, we realized all of these topics are affected by mental health and related to it.”

Another member of the group, Sam Bleeke, a junior at Homestead High School, says he’s looking forward to being part of the symposium for the first time this Spring. Over the Summer, he works for an organization called “Out of a Jamm,” which works with at-risk teens, training them in the skills used in commercial kitchens and assisting them through a life skills workshop. Students learn the ins and outs of running a food operation as they assist with the production of jam and operate the nonprofit’s own food truck.

Paula Kaufman, who runs Out of a Jamm, will be hosting a breakout session about nutrition and food insecurity at the upcoming symposium. Bleeke is excited for more area students to learn about the work being done in Fort Wayne’s community to combat challenges, like poverty and food insecurity, which impact mental health. 

“We wanted to talk about what we thought was important,” says Bleeke. “So I brought up Paula, and she's very passionate about food insecurity. When you're at school, you're supposed to be focusing on your schoolwork and learning, but that’s hard to do when you have this hunger…. How are you expected to learn? You’re distracted by not having food, but also, you don't have the nutrients to successfully have a working mind or the ability to focus.”

The symposium invites more local high schoolers into these conversations and reminds them they’re not alone in seeking solutions.

Attend the symposium

Peace of Mind and Body is open to all Fort Wayne area students grades 10-12. It will be held April 20, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. 

Students who wish to attend should visit their guidance counselor for a permission slip and instructions to register online. The deadline for registration is April 15.

Read more articles by Brittany Smith.

Brittany Smith is Input Fort Wayne’s Assistant Editor. She previously worked for Northeast Indiana Public Radio and participated in the College Input Program.