Uniting for Youth: Insights From the JED Policy Summit on Student Mental Health
By Rebecca Bauer On October 30, 2023, more than 100 mental health experts, advocates, and allies gathered in Washington, D.C., for the JED Policy Summit: ...
By Lauren Patetta
Before the launch of Neon Nights, the student organizers at Stevens Institute of Technology were already well acquainted with mental health advocacy. Between the impact of COVID-19, their peers’ experiences, and their own personal struggles, mental health has played a prominent role in their lives.
“When I heard about the opportunity [to get involved in Neon Nights], I really just wanted to give back,” said Sydney Linford, the Sponsorship Chair of the Neon Nights planning committee and a fourth-year student at Stevens. “Mental health has kind of been an ongoing journey throughout my high school and now college life.”
Last March, The Jed Foundation (JED) held its inaugural Neon Nights event at Stevens, which is located in Hoboken, New Jersey. The signature student-led event raises both awareness of mental health and funds for JED so it can advance its mission to protect emotional health and prevent suicide among young people.
“When I first started my journey at Stevens, I had immense anxiety and I was having a really hard time,” said volunteer Alicia Zajac. “The main reason I was involved with Neon Nights is because I’m very passionate about mental health and particularly raising awareness for it on college campuses. I think a lot of times it can fall through the cracks.”
The pilot event raised $13,000 for mental health, and featured close to 100 students at the signature parade and glow-themed dance party on campus. None of it would have been possible without the incredible support of the student volunteers, whose passion and dedication made Neon Nights a success.
Jenna Giesecke, a fourth-year student, was Executive Director of the Neon Nights student committee at Stevens. Using her connections with the Greek Honor Society and the Diversity and Inclusion Committee, where she also volunteers as the Accessibility Advocate, Jenna helped to recruit volunteers, host planning meetings, find local sponsors, and advertise the event. She said she didn’t set out with the intention of leading Neon Nights, but fell into the role naturally through her other work on campus.
“I do a lot of work helping students with disabilities and improving accessibility on campus,” Giesecke said. “I thought an event [like Neon Nights] that was geared toward mental health awareness would suit me.”
Giesecke, who also works as an emergency medical technician in Hoboken, said her EMT training helped shape how she responds to peers who come to her struggling with their mental health and inspired her work with Neon Nights.
“It’s a very common emergency call for someone to potentially be suicidal or in high distress. … What they tell you [in EMT training] is to just listen and empathize with them,” she said. “I take that to every aspect of my life, whether I’m on a scene or just with my friends. I don’t have to be an expert on mental health. I just need to be there to listen.”
For Zajac, a junior who volunteered as the Logistics Chair, getting involved with Neon Nights felt like a natural extension of her role as a peer leader. After her tumultuous first year, she became a peer leader to support first-year students as they transition to college life. When she was struggling, the school’s counseling services and older students offered support and became a crucial guide through the uncertainty. She now works to be that resource for other students.
“I really wanted to raise awareness for [mental health on college campuses] and put it on everybody’s radar, and also just host a fun event to destigmatize the conversation surrounding mental health,” Zajac said. “Oftentimes, I think people can perceive it to be a dark or negative thing, and we wanted to bring a new light to it.”
The organizers said the night of the event and dance party was hectic, exciting, and fulfilling all at once. After months of preparation—and a delay due to a water-main break in Hoboken—the student organizers, volunteers, and participants all finally gathered to “glow” for mental health. Decked out in neon face paint and glow-stick jewelry, students began the event by sharing personal stories related to mental health, including Linford, who gave the opening address. Although it was a bit scary to share her private story in front of a large crowd, she said, it was also very rewarding.
“My favorite part about the night was seeing so many different organizations and groups of students coming together in one community with one goal,” Zajac said. “Seeing everyone together in one room was, like, oh, my gosh, we’re all here for each other and we all care about one another.”
If you’re interested in getting your campus glowing for mental health, please fill out this form to become a Neon Nights Partner Campus.
If you or someone you know needs to talk to someone right now, text, call, or chat 988 for a free confidential conversation with a trained counselor 24/7.
You can also contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741.
If this is a medical emergency or if there is immediate danger of harm, call 911 and explain that you need support for a mental health crisis.