For Foster City teen Samer Bahu, the beginning of his high school career some two years ago was nothing short of overwhelming.

Between facing a multitude of homework assignments every night and navigating a new social scene at San Mateo’s Hillsdale High School, Bahu found that he and many of his peers were not only dealing with one or two new experiences at a time, but several at once.

Having been bullied for his outgoing personality and acne as a student at Bowditch Middle School in Foster City, Bahu knew what it was like to feel isolated in a crowd. And he was determined not to let his high school experience be defined by others, instead finding ways to help other students facing similar situations connect with mental health resources that feel relevant to them. For the past year, Bahu, now a junior, has been involved with the nonprofit SafeSpace to shape peer-to-peer programs aimed at easing youth anxiety and reducing the stigma of seeking mental health resources.

“I don’t want anyone to feel that way,” he said. “I think it’s important to listen to people rather than talk at them.”

Bahu has been working with other students involved with the Menlo Park-based nonprofit to create videos spreading the word about the importance of mental health, but the nonprofit’s decision to rent space at the coworking space The Garden by Equal Play at 11 N. Ellsworth Ave. has allowed him to expand his work to an effort to offer mental health panels in middle schools.

Exploring resources, providing support

Liesl Pike Moldow, a co-founder of the nonprofit, said she was one of a few mothers whose children experienced anxiety and depression and who in 2016 decided to explore how they could make much-needed mental health resources like therapists trained to work with children and teens more available to youth. Though they initially imagined creating a center with therapists and inpatient services, they found research consistently showed youth can be among the most powerful advocates for other youth who may be experiencing anxiety, depression or crisis.

Starting with 16 students at the nonprofit’s Menlo Park location, the nonprofit offered basic training in leadership, mental health education and compassionate listening, among other skills, said Moldow, who added they also facilitated meetings between students and school administrators, sports coaches and other adults working with high school-age youth. Moldow said it wasn’t long before the youth involved with the nonprofit began shaping mental health-related resources at their schools, creating a community of students in support of others who may be struggling with mental health issues and offering outreach events aimed at reducing the stigma around mental health issues.

From bullying to anxiety about preparing for the standardized testing required for college applications, high school students experience a wide range of pressures, said Moldow. By sharing their own experiences with these challenges, the students who are the driving force behind the nonprofit are hoping to help others develop coping skills or find their way to the mental health resources most relevant to them, she said.

“In this whole process, the young people have basically just shared their own stories and in sharing those stories, they have opened themselves up,” she said. “It’s not therapy, but it’s peer-to-peer support.”

‘A community of kids’

Novak Chernesky, a junior at the Upper School at Crystal Springs Uplands School, looked forward to the opportunity to extend the SafeSpace community to students living near or around San Mateo. Chernesky said he was drawn to the nonprofit about a year and a half ago because of its youth-driven approach and focus on mental health resources that are relevant to kids and teens. Having struggled with mental health at different points in his life, Chernesky said some of the mental health resources he’s encountered have felt predetermined and not relevant to his experiences.

Chernesky said finding and promoting resources that are relevant to youth is part of SafeSpace’s mission, something he’s tried to foster at his school.

“It feels like you have a community of kids who are interested in helping you out,” he said. “I think that’s the most important thing in terms of really helping.”

Moldow said the nonprofit has partnered with the Bay Area Clinical Associates to help refer youth to mental health services, and also to advise on the initiatives the nonprofit’s youth members develop. She said the youth members typically meet weekly to discuss initiatives ranging from the nonprofit’s outreach strategy to coordinating student panels at schools. Though the nonprofit started out working with high school students, Moldow said the students and administrators are hoping to do more work with middle school students in an effort to reach them before they start high school.

Having been one of the first students to become involved with SafeSpace, Caitlyn McWilliams, now a sophomore in college, was excited to see the nonprofit bring youth together closer to her hometown of Hillsborough. McWilliams was a junior when she became part of the first set of youth advisors to the nonprofit, and remembered having conversations with school administrators about what was working and what could be improved in schools with regard to mental health resources.

Among the many growth experiences she’s had with the organization, McWilliams counted coordinating a school assembly on mental health and helping shape the nonprofit’s mission and approach among the most memorable experiences she’s had with SafeSpace.

“It felt good to be heard, but I also think that’s the right way to approach it,” she said. “As a kid having adults asking you ‘what do you think we should do?’ is what’s really different about the organization.”

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