Student Voice of Mental Health Award Winner Rick Yang on Helping Youth Take Up Space

Like so many young adults, Rick Yang felt isolated during the COVID-19 pandemic. He was so focused on checking boxes — virtual learning, FaceTiming friends, dinner with family — that he didn’t realize he was struggling with his mental health. 

After engaging in meaningful conversations with friends, he began to open up to them — and himself — about the challenges he faced. He then made the brave decision to use his experience to advocate for youth mental health. 

Rick Yang, JED's 2024 Student Voice of Mental Health Awards high school winner.As this year’s high school Student Voice of Mental Health Award winner, Rick has dedicated himself to combating mental health stereotypes and putting teens and young adults at the forefront of conversations and decision-making about youth mental health. 

He is the youngest member of the Mental Health America Young Leaders Council for 2023-2024, as well as the co-founder and CEO of Frontiers of Fulfillment, a nonprofit that offers advocacy and lobbying workshops in over 30 states to amplify youth voices in policymaking. In his school district, Scarsdale Public Schools in New York, Rick organized and implemented SchoolSight: A Comprehensive Mental Health Vision, an initiative aimed at identifying and implementing evidence-based interventions to safeguard student mental health. Findings from the research ultimately led Rick, along with his peers and district superintendent, to secure a $125,000 grant to create wellness spaces for 5,000 local students. Rick is continuing his advocacy work through his senior year of high school and into his college career, which he will begin at Harvard University in the fall. 

The Jed Foundation (JED) created the Student Voice of Mental Health Award to recognize students for their outstanding efforts to raise awareness for mental health issues and encourage help-seeking behaviors in their school communities. The award includes a $3,000 scholarship and presentation of the award at JED’s annual gala in New York City on June 3, 2024. 

We talked with Rick to learn more about his advocacy and impact.

What does it mean to you to have won this award?

Receiving this award is quite surreal, because I never thought I would get it. When I got accepted, I thought to myself, “Hey, I really did this.” But it wasn’t just me, there were so many people who helped me along the way. My sister supported me continuously, my parents drove and flew me places, and all the other advocates and councils I’ve partnered with encouraged me to apply. It feels great. 

You’re doing incredible work to break down mental health stereotypes, including the model minority myth, a damaging stereotype that affects Asian-American students. How have these stereotypes factored into your mental health journey, and why is shattering them crucial to protecting youth mental health?

The model minority myth certainly played a large role in my mental health journey. Throughout middle school and into high school, I faced the societal expectation — and expectations within my community of Asian-Americans, specifically, Chinese-Americans — to be a high achiever. I found it really hard to be proud of myself, because there’s a lot of comparison. Even if I got a 99 on an exam, there would be some kid who got 100 — and those kinds of details are discussed and criticized in my community. There was always a way to be better, and I had to learn to cope with that pressure.

When it comes to improving youth mental health, it’s very interdisciplinary. Different cultural factors are at play and they need to be addressed for young people to get the support and help they need. For example, there are cultural barriers that often prevent youth from accessing mental health services in the first place. Those are the kinds of obstacles we need to tear down so no one goes without help.

You spearheaded an initiative, SchoolSight, to implement evidence-based mental health interventions in your school district. One of those interventions is creating wellness spaces in your high school. Can you share more about the inspiration behind that effort?

I attended a district mental health meeting. The sentiment that came out of it was that students are stressed, but that’s just a common thing that occurs and there isn’t much that can be done about it. My immediate thought was, “If there’s a problem, there is a way to solve it. I have to do something.” That started my journey of finding ways to better fund mental health services in my school. 

I conducted interviews with district psychologists, social workers, and other stakeholders in my county, and students and parents too. I learned that students were definitely stressed out, but they weren’t visibly distressed, and a lot of the mental health funding my district received was for high-risk students showing signs of distress. The funding wasn’t wasted, but it wasn’t being optimized for the needs of students in my particular district. 

I attended Congressman Jamaal Bowman’s Youth Leadership Conference in May 2023, and that’s where I came up with the idea of implementing wellness centers in my district. I later presented the idea to a group of legislators and worked with my district superintendent to secure a grant for the project. 

We’re working on creating wellness spaces with students’ needs at the center, which we’re learning about through upcoming surveys. We’re also working on deploying wellness kits in every classroom. These kits will have stress balls and other fidget-items and resources to help students ease stress and anxiety before or after a test, or whenever they need it.

The pandemic was a difficult time for so many of us, but you used the challenges you faced as a catalyst for positive change in your life and in the lives of others. Can you tell us more about that?

I’ve used various aspects of my lived experience as a catalyst for the advocacy work I’ve engaged in. I think leaning on our lived experiences is crucial for proper mental health dialogue and storytelling. Real stories are often more impactful than a statistic, or they shed more light on a statistic. They should also inform policy. Youth with lived experience coping with mental health challenges should be working alongside seasoned professionals to shape services, practices, and policies.

With everything you do, how do you make time to take care of your emotional health?

I’m a former professional esports player, but I still play a lot of video games with my friends. That might come across as a cliché teenage boy, but I find that it’s de-stressing and bonds me and my friends together. I also enjoy playing soccer or Spikeball with my friends on the weekends, playing board games with my family, and beatboxing. I sometimes practice beatboxing to de-stress. It lets me create my own internal rhythms that let me focus when I’m doing work or other things. 

What’s next on your advocacy agenda as you approach high school graduation?

I’m definitely looking to continue working on the initiatives I’ve started, and I’m passing down info and ideas to some younger advocate friends so they can continue the work after I’ve graduated. 

I hope to discover new avenues for mental health activism and research and continue advocating for the importance of youth voices in youth mental health and school mental health policies. If we genuinely want to make a difference, then adults need to do more than allow young people to speak up. They have to actively encourage youth to share their novel ideas and perspectives and create spaces where young people feel safe to express their thoughts. We deserve to be treated as equal partners in these conversations, which ultimately have outcomes that affect our well-being.

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