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Many students are facing mental health challenges, but they don’t always feel comfortable talking to a guidance counselor. Some feel alone and think they’re the only ones struggling. It’s important to have more options and better support systems in schools.

This feedback was gleaned from high schoolers from Brandon, Middleton, and Armwood high schools on Friday, March 8, 2024, at the 8th annual GradNation Community Summit at the Hilton Downtown Tampa.

The summit, put on by the Alliance for Public Schools and title sponsor Tampa Bay Thrives, convened more than 300 students and community leaders to explore ways to create a community where everyone can “Learn, Live, and Thrive.”

Students participated in breakout sessions where they showed the community and their peers the work they’ve been doing at their schools to increase graduation rates and improve school culture and climate.
Additionally, the day featured mental health-boosting stations such as feelings Jenga, yoga, conversation prompts, affirmations, and a feelings wall.

“Listening to student voices is first for us as a school district,” said Hillsborough County School District Superintendent Van Ayres. “But really it comes down to creating a supportive environment for all of our students every single day.”

Ayres moderated a panel discussion featuring members of his Student Advisory Council reflecting on the day’s conversations and how the valuable lessons learned by student leaders can be applied to benefit the broader community. The second panel of the day, “Building a Thriving Community: Creating a Culture for Mental Health and Success” included: Kristy Hust, BayCare Operations Manager; Tina James, Florida Blue Sr. Manager, Corporate Social Responsibility; Cindy Stuart, Hillsborough County Clerk of Court and Comptroller; and Carrie Zeisse, Tampa Bay Thrives President & CEO.

“Young people are increasingly encountering issues that are impacting their mental health,” Zeisse said. “There’s no better way to approach a solution than having kids at the center of the discussion because they really know more than we do about what they need.”

Scroll to view more photos from the GradNation Community Summit:

Photos: Dave Decker  Video: Jeff Wooly