Children's Hospital Colorado Mental Health Youth Action Board

What if we owned and openly discussed how mental health is a part of all of our stories?

Photo of Heather Kennedy
2 11

Written by

Founding Story: Share a story about a key experience or spark that helps the network understand why this project got started or a story about how you became inspired about the potential for this project to succeed.

After losing my mother to mental illness and tobacco addiction I was invited to participate in a youth movement. I learned my personal experience was a powerful tool for leveraging my voice. In 2010, I was diagnosed with postpartum depression and generalized anxiety disorder. In 2013, I created the Mental Health Youth Action Board to engage teens from across Denver to create social action around teen mental health. Three projects deep, we've educated thousands, but we aren't done yet.

Which categories describe you? (the answer will not be public)

  • White (for example: German, Irish, English, Italian, Polish, French, Caucasian)

Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [State]

  • Colorado

Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [City]


Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [State]

  • Colorado

Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [City]

Denver, Littleton, Arvada, Castle Rock, Monument, Aurora, Parker, Colorado

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

Mental health stigma results from four social–cognitive processes: cues, stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination (Corrigan, 2004). Mental health stigma results in deficits in help seeking, poor self-esteem for those struggling, and social isolation (Corrigan, 2004). The fifteen member youth action board works to alleviate stigma through addressing three out of four of these processes: cues, stereotypes, and prejudice. Each year we develop one, arts-based project and share it with the Colorado community. While 1 in 5 teens experience mental health problems, so few people are willing to discuss mental illness, treatment, stress, suicide, self harm, or anxiety. We must treat mental health problems like other physical health issues. Teens facilitating conversations breaks down these barriers. We use art based approaches because they are subjective, just like stigma.

We must engage youth through purposeful connections to issues they care about. Most youth have personal experiences with issues related to mental health. Teens can play a critical role in decreasing this stigma. The Youth Action Board provides teens the resources to create an arts-based project each year that illuminates the darkness around mental health, helps people learn to listen, and normalizes mental health as part of all of our stories. Almost all of the teens we've talked to have already supported a friend in with a mental health problem. We give teens a creative platform to share information and resources to the reduce mental health stigma.

Is your model focused on any of the following traditionally underserved communities?

  • No, not explicitly

Does your model work within any of the following sectors?

  • Mental Health

Year Founded


Project Stage

  • Scaling (the solution has passed the previous stages, and the next step will be growing its impact on a regional or global scale)

Example: Walk the network through a specific example of what happens when a person or group engages with your solution.

Hospitals are not places you would traditionally conceive of youth leadership emanating from. Yet, we've created a model of youth empowerment for social action around mental health at a large Children's Hospital. Each year, we choose a arts-based project approach (PhotoVoice, Videography, Poetry, Digital Storytelling) and create a product to share with the community. Youth Board members present to school and community audiences; they create a conversation around mental health, illness, and stigma. The youth learn leadership skills and become advocates for wellbeing. Our model and projects are replicable, Mental health organizations and hospitals could all host a Youth Action Boards, so that youth can be the catalyst for change.

Impact: What was the impact of your work last year? Please also describe the projected future impact for the coming years.

Our impact includes the youth members and the community. With our 2015-2016 six word stories project: Mental Health is ALL our stories, we've engaged over 1000 youth and 2000 adults. We also conducted 14 interviews with past youth board members (from 2013-2015). In the preliminary analysis of these interviews, four themes emerged: the importance of the arts-based methodological approach as a turning point in their personal and collective identity development, the desire to continue to stay involved after they graduate, a need for more opportunities within colleges/universities for projects like this, and how the Mental Health Youth Action Board provided a unique opportunity that was not available to them elsewhere. This summer, we will package our three projects into a toolkit for educators. Next year, we plan to create digital stories of youth's perspective on wellbeing.

Organization Type

  • nonprofit/NGO/citizen sector

Annual Budget

  • $10k - $50k

Financial Sustainability Plan: What is your solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

Currently, we are internally funded with an annual budget of approximately $14,000. This budget includes provisions for staff time, youth stipends, social action project supplies, and food for meetings. In order to expand, we would like to apply to local foundations to expand the Mental Health Youth Action Board into four other community-based mental health settings.

Unique Value Proposition: How else is this problem being addressed? Are there other organizations working in the same field, and how does your project differ from these other approaches?

To our knowledge, there are no other Hospitals who have created Youth Action Boards specifically aimed at creating social change around mental health/wellbeing. However, mental health organizations and hospitals could create a Mental Health Youth Action Board and replicate our projects. YAB members note that mental health is only lightly covered in their curriuclum. So, this summer, we are developing a toolkit for educators to further use our three projects, the toolkit could be made publicly available. In the next twelve months, we plan to present about the model at academic conferences.

Reflect on the Field and its Future: Stepping outside of your project, what do you see as the most important or promising shifts that can advance children’s wellbeing?

We (youth included) must address the structural barriers to youth's full participation in society. Youth should be included in decision-making for all the policies, programs, and practices that impact their lives. This means adopting a "nothing about us, without us" philosophy. Youth should be involved in coming up with solutions to the problems they face whether it's mental illness, tobacco addiction, drug abuse, poverty, police brutality, etc. When we see and appreciate youth as important civic actors, important citizens, they will be able to achieve their full potential.

Source: How did you hear about the Children’s Wellbeing Challenge? (the answer will not be public)

  • Word of mouth

Program Design Clarity

Our 3 projects have served middle and high school groups and adult audiences in Colorado. Our 2015-2016 project, developed an implemented by teens, was hosted on social media, one of our 6-word stories was released for every day in May (mental health month), the community was invited to participate by adding their own 6-word story. We also hosted booths at health fairs, classrooms, and at TEDxMileHigh. We collected over 150 more 6-word stories from audiences across the state. An example contribution from a community member was: "Putting the pieces back together, again".

Community Leadership

Our teen board represents the diversity of Colorado in race/ethnicity, socioeconomics, and perspectives. We have engaged 35 teens over the last 3 years from 18 schools and 8 school districts. We also partner with other youth-led boards in our city such as Rise Above Colorado and the Denver Mayor's Youth Commission. Each year, our teens help shape our projects and their respective community outreach components.

Age of Children Impacted

  • 12+

Spread Strategies

We are currently analyzing our alumni interview data with hopes of publishing a scholarly paper on our model. We hope to share these findings and our model with other hospitals and community-based mental health settings. One youth action board alum and one facilitator will present about our work at the American Public Health Association. We also hope to create a guidebook for others considering this approach, full of lessons-learned.

Reflect on how your work helps children to thrive. How are you cultivating children’s sense of self, belonging, and purpose through your model?

The youth board members have articulated that from participating in the board, they learn self-awareness, compassion, vulnerability, and the power that come from authenticity. Our teens also learn the power and potential of using their passion for a common goal. When our youth board members interact with the community, tell their personal mental health story, they learn to turn their tragedy into triumph and strength.

Leadership Story

The Department Chair's initial request was for a Youth Advisory Board. When asked to lead this group, I noted that teens are capable of being more than advisors, that they are ready and hungry for action. In 2014, we were asked to speak at the State Board of Education, the Department Chair was concerned, "What if they say something wrong?". I fought for their right to speak on an issue they had so passionately spoke about in our meetings. We spoke in 2014, and received feedback that our testimony impacted the board's decision. In 2016 we spoke again, sharing our 6-word story project.

Leader's LinkedIn Profile (URL)


Join the conversation:

Photo of Nathan M McTague, CPCC, CPDPE

This is stellar! And truly novel. And as with a number of the other programs here, I just feel so glad knowing that you're out there doing the work that you do.

In terms of sharpening your proposal -- I think the only thing I could suggest would be to include some testimonials from previous participants in your program, their parents, teachers, and/or peers, if you have them. Otherwise, and in any case, I think you make a compelling case for a landmark project.

Good luck!

Photo of Heather Kennedy

Thank you! I feel very fortunate to be able to lead this group of young, passionate leaders. It truly is remarkable what they are able to do, given the opportunity. We (a youth board member and I) will be presenting at the American Public Health Association meeting. We'd love to invite people to our Roundtable. Our work is also being highlighted during the Public health film sessions.