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Student research probes youth mental health in Grand Traverse region

Hannah Hughey is familiar with the struggles she and her peers have with issues like stress and anxiety, and she wonders where people turn for help.

“Are more people likely to go to their parents or their siblings or their teachers?” the senior from Ellsworth said.

She’s finding answers to that question and others through an online survey open until April 17 for high school students in Antrim, Benzie, Grand Traverse, Leelanau, and Kalkaska counties.

Hannah and more than a dozen other high-school students designed the survey as part of the Youth Wellness Initiative, a program created by Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation.

Interlochen Public Radio is also a partner in the project.

The students had help designing the survey from Woody Smith, a Traverse City consultant who specializes in market research for business strategy. The team learned about research methods and field tested the 18-question survey before launching it in March.

The questions gauge the extent to which respondents struggle from various stressors like worry, fear or hopelessness. It explores how they respond and what prevents them from seeking or finding help.

Smith says the survey is based on the lived experience of the students and he was pleased with how it explores formal and informal resources for addressing mental wellness.

“Hopefully it’s going to lead to empathy,” he said, “and practical understanding for our whole region.”

Students involved in the project come from schools across the Grand Traverse region.

Ella Kirkwood is a junior at Traverse City Central High School and has been involved in a school advocacy effort called Trojans Unite. She likes the depth and analytical approach they are taking in the Youth Wellness Initiative.

Kirkwood says even though these problems are pervasive, they are still stigmatized and not talked about enough.

“It’s kind of like a new frontier,” she said.

As of this week, more than 250 people had filled out the survey. Woody Smith says responses have come from across the region but mainly from a handful of schools.

“Our hope is to get representation from more schools across the five county region,” he said.

This is the first phase of the multi-year project. In the fall, students will work with Interlochen Public Radio to create audio stories, and possibly a podcast series, that bring to life the findings of their research.

The Youth Wellness Initiative is hosted by the Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation and funded by the Michigan Health Endowment Fund. The foundation’s director, Dave Mengebier says they are glad to convene the group.

“We can develop a more holistic understanding of the mental health needs of local high student-age youth across our region and uncover better ways to support them," Mengebier said.

The foundation also runs a youth advisory group that makes recommendations for grants made from a youth endowment fund.

Peter Payette is the Executive Director of Interlochen Public Radio and has managed the news department since 2001. For more than a decade, he hosted the weekly program