In 2002, Sarah Brown was struggling. Her beloved cousin Tim — really more an older brother figure — had recently died by suicide after years spent struggling with bipolar disorder. Distraught and confused, Brown knew she needed to find support.
Naturally, she turned to her best friend, Erica Sivertson, who’d grown up with a close family member who’d also struggled with a serious mental illness. The two girls, then sophomores at Minneapolis’ South High School, decided to look for other sources of support. They knew they couldn’t be the only teenagers whose lives had been changed by mental illness, and they decided they wanted to pull together a group of other South High students who could talk about the topic and back each other up through their struggles.
“Erica was key in helping me through all of this,” Brown recalled. “Tim was a large part of her life as well. It was such a tragic situation: We were feeling very helpless and confused. Having to cope with that as a kid was really hard.”
Inspired by the Yellow Ribbon Campaign for suicide prevention, Brown and Sivertson decided to create their own group at South, one that would support and educate students about mental illness, through group discussions, conversations with mental health experts and advocacy. They teamed up with Eva Neubeck, then a social worker at South, and named their group The Silver Ribbon Campaign.
From the start, Brown and Sivertson saw significant support for SRC, as it was quickly dubbed by South High students and staff. “We had this idea and not one person that we spoke to about it ever said no,” Sivertson recalled. “They just kept introducing us to people who encouraged us to keep bringing our idea forward.”
Neubeck was SRC’s staunchest supporter, Brown said: “Eva and the school provided us with a number of resources. I don’t know if it would’ve continued if it weren’t for her. Erica and I were the match that started the fire, but Eva was the wood that kept it going indefinitely.”
Neubeck, for her part, remembers feeling inspired by the two girls’ passion for the subject. She wanted to help them out in any way she could.
“Erica and Sarah approached me,” said Neubeck, who retired from South in 2015. She’s enjoyed a long friendship with Sue Abderholden, NAMI Minnesota’s executive director, so she gave her friend a call and set up a meeting. “The girls and I got together with Sue and one of her staff members,” Neubeck recalled. “They helped us think about ways we could structure the group and explained how they could support us.”
At the beginning, SRC’s lunchtime meetings were mainly attended by a small but loyal group of Brown and Sivertson’s closest friends. Sivertson, who had a part-time job a Bruegger’s, provided bagels and cream cheese as an incentive for attendance.
“We met every other week,” Brown recalled. “We would rotate topics. I remember we also did things to raise awareness, like hang up different facts about mental illness around school. Eventually we started asking people to come speak about issues around mental illness and its impact on society.”
Siverston recalled how, in SRC’s early days, she heard some kids at school making fun of the group’s mental-health fact signs.
“I remember being taken aback by that,” she said. “That was something that helped me understand some of the stigma that people with mental illness face every day.” But that dismissive attitude quickly wore off, as more and more students began to attend SRC’s meetings.
Brown said the group flourished in South High’s culture of belonging. “There was more of a stigma the first year, but in general I found South to be a very accepting environment,” she said. “It was a very unique place, and that was just the kind of environment this group needed to thrive.”
As news about SRC meetings started to spread around school, Neubeck said she saw student attitudes about mental illness change before her eyes.
“It was all very exciting because so many kids were very enthusiastic about SRC,” Neubeck said. “Kids who had a mental illness, kids who had friends and family with mental illness, and kids who were just interested in the topic.”
And teachers got involved, too. “They’d come to the meetings sometimes,” Neubeck said. “They’d ask questions. Their awareness became stronger, which was important for students in general. It made the whole school atmosphere a safer place to be.”
During SRC’s first year, Brown, Sivertson and Neubeck worked hard to find speakers and arrange events that would attract students and address issues of interest to young people.
The meetings were frequent at first, sometimes even weekly.
“I think we had 22 events our first year,” Sivertson said. Speakers included students who were willing to talk about their own experience with mental illness and professionals in the field of mental health.
The relationship with Abderholden and her staff came in handy, she added: “We asked NAMI for speakers. They provided several people, which was wonderful.” And the three also arranged awareness-building events based around mental health disorders designed to spark conversation. “Some of the things we did included handing out food during Eating Disorder Awareness week. We wrote a letter to Cub Foods and solicited donations.”
Abderholden said that her organization was excited to lend its support to the grassroots youth-led program. “The Silver Ribbon Campaign is unique in that it is student-led and staff-supported,” she said, “making it successful in raising awareness and providing peer support.”
As SRC meetings started to gain attention around South, they eventually grew beyond their original structure. With attendees growing beyond Brown and Sivertson’s friends, the free bagels and cream cheese became a thing of the past.
“In the beginning, I thought, ‘Even if someone just comes in to grab a bagel, if they get educated during that time period it is worth the cost,’” Neubeck said. “But eventually we outgrew that as an option. The group just got too big. We couldn’t feed everybody — and we didn’t need that to get people to come anymore.”
With increased interest came new problems. When the group got too big for the lunchroom, Neubeck explained, they moved to a small classroom. The group, she recalled, “stayed a fairly small number for a number of years. We met during lunchtime so kids didn’t have to miss a class. Then more kids became interested and we decided to meet during the school day so that we could accommodate different kids from different lunch periods. We wanted to make it available to as many kids as wanted to participate.”
Though a group of high school kids can get unruly, Neubeck said that the mood at SRC meetings always felt “extremely respectful.” Speakers often discussed sensitive topics, and students listened intently, with many asking thoughtful questions.
“During these presentations,” Neubeck said, “you could hear a pin drop. I didn’t lead the meetings. The kids led them themselves.”
After particularly meaty discussions, the topics often carried over into the rest of the school day.
“When kids left that meeting you could hear them talking in the hall about what they’d just learned,” Neubeck said. “It became a schoolwide awareness and stigma-busting effort. It was hard to keep people away. At one point, we had one meeting where there were over 235 students in one room. We had kids sitting on each other’s laps. That’s how popular it had become.”
With encouragement from Abderholden and NAMI, SRC members took their cause outside South High, to the state Capitol, where they lobbied legislators to increase mental health funding at the organization’s annual Day on the Hill event.
“We had this supportive group of people who backed us up,” Brown said. “We were enthusiastic and ready to pass what we’d learned on to anyone who was willing to listen.”
The legacy continues
In 2005, When Brown and Sivertson graduated South and moved on to college, SRC remained strong. New student leaders stepped in, and Neubeck continued to advocate for the group. Membership, which had already grown beyond the founders’ closest friends, expanded even further.
In 2012, NAMI Minnesota honored SRC when it presented members with an “Anti-Stigma” award at its annual conference in St. Paul. The group was selected for the award, Aberholden explained, “because of the sheer number of students that were involved and their accomplishments,” A proud alumna, Brown joined the group for the award presentation.
“Starting SRC with Erica is an accomplishment that I’m really proud of,” she said. “And I’m so happy that it continues at South to this day.”
As she neared retirement, Neubeck made sure to emphasize SRC’s importance in the overall culture at South to her replacement, social worker Katie Fritz. “Eva explained how the group worked,” Fritz recalled. “It quickly became clear that it was an important resource for everyone at the school.”
Neubeck likes to credit SRC with building an overall sense of safety at South in the midst of trying times.
“There’s so much talk about kids’ anxiety in high school and all the trauma that’s being addressed and these drills that are being done in the face of shootings and the number of kids asking for accommodations,” she said. “I think the work these kids are doing with SRC is remarkable. At South High we have that embedded in the culture, and I’d hate to see that go away.”
Salma Hussein, another South social worker, said that SRC lives on 17 years later because of the strong foundation Neubeck laid. “I think this is part of Eva’s legacy. She saw a need and she was able to partner with the kiddos and support them.”
South High senior Sundus Noor is a member of SRC’s leadership team. She said that she joined the group after Hussein encouraged her to go to a meeting.
“Ms. Salma pushed me toward this group,” Noor said with a quiet chuckle. “And after attending a meeting, I got intrigued by the things that they have accomplished and are wanting to accomplish, like breaking stigmas around mental health, like the attitude that mental health is just for people who are ill or not really right in the head.”
Noor said that SRC’s culture of openness helped her to feel comfortable to talk about her own mental health concerns. After speaking with fellow SRC members and to Hussein, she eventually worked up the courage to tell her mother that she wanted to see a therapist at the high school’s clinic.
“I said, ‘Mom, I want to go to therapy,’” Noor recalled. “She’s like, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘Because I’m looking to go into that career, and also I just want someone to talk to daily.’ She’s like, ‘OK. Whatever you’re good with.’ My mom in general is modern, but other people’s family members would say in this situation, ‘No. Is there something wrong? Are you mentally ill? Are you crazy?’ They would make assumptions on what is going on.”
Noor said she believes that SRC provides an important source of support for students. When a young person struggles with mental health issues during school, she said, “You don’t get anything done. You are just sitting there. You lose focus on everything and lose hope.”
Talking openly about mental health is key, she added: “I think this generation is outgrowing the phase where we aren’t comfortable talking about stuff.”
Hussein sees this as a positive change. “Through SRC, kids realize that mental health concerns are nothing to be ashamed of. Kids can feel comfortable sharing their stories and being vulnerable.” The group, she added, “gives people a language to describe their experience and makes it universal. Kids realize there is not something wrong with them but it’s actually something that many people experience.”
Awareness of mental health is embedded in the school’s culture, Hussein said.
“One thing that is unique about South is that our kiddos with a mental health diagnosis can get something called a ‘chill pass,’” she said. “Everyone in the building knows that if a kid shows you that pass, they are taking a break and going to a trusted adult they have a relationship with. Teachers and classroom support know that the pass is important and that kids with the pass need that space.”
While they’ve never seen another Minnesota high school launch an SRC spinoff group, Fritz said that over the years, South has been approached by other school social workers who are interested in starting a similar group in their schools.
Neubeck said that she believes SRC at South has survived because students have historically carried the responsibility for keeping the group alive. “Adult support is important,” Neubeck said, “but I think it’s really important that the group is run by students. That’s what’s kept it going at South all these years.”
Still going strong
On a damp, cloudy November afternoon, a circle of some 50 chairs was set up in the South High library. It was time for the SRC meeting, and Fritz, Hussein and a handful of student organizers were bustling around, getting ready for students to start trickling in.
The speaker for the day was Annie Stone, youth and family program coordinator for Gilda’s Club Twin Cities, an organization that provides social, emotional and psychological support for people impacted by cancer. A student at South had recently been diagnosed with cancer, and organizers thought it would be a good time to get a conversation started about ways students can cope in the face of this news.
South High junior Lila Allgood, a member SRC’s student leadership team, talked about how she got involved in the group.
“When I was a freshman, I struggled with going to class because of anxiety,” she explained as students began filling the seats. “I went to an SRC meeting, and spoke the next week about my mental health history.”
The group, she said, “opens my eyes to what everyone is dealing with. It gives us a safe place to share with each other. We feel supported. I have spoken up and talked about how I’m dealing with my anxiety.”
Noor, Fritz and Hussein were sporting matching blue SRC T-shirts. “We like to wear them on the day we have a seminar,” Noor said. It helps remind people that the meeting is scheduled for that day — and helps keep the conversation going after the seminar is over.”
“Sometimes the talks help students,” Noor said, “and afterward some of my friends come up to me and say, ‘That was really good. I want to come here more often. I say, ‘You’re definitely welcome. Tell more of your friends to come, too.’”
The meeting started, and Stone gave a basic talk about what her organization does before inviting students to join in the discussion.
“What if I came to school tomorrow without hair?” she asked. “How would you treat me?”
Some of the students shifted uncomfortably in their seats or looked down at their phones, but most seemed honestly engaged.
A few answered Stone’s question, saying, “We’d treat you the same.”
Eventually, Stone asked students if they had questions for her, and one asked, quietly, “What is terminal cancer?”
Stone answered her question, and that that was quickly followed by more: “What’s the hardest part of your job?” “What does chemo do?”
But it was clear that even though they were polite and engaged, the students hadn’t come to hear a talk about a cancer-support group. Clearly they were there for the personal stories.
One student offered an anecdote: “A few years ago, my cousin’s aunt had breast cancer.” She told the group about how her relative’s illness, treatment and eventual death impacted her whole family. “Cancer doesn’t touch just one person,” she said, seriously.
Another student commented, “When I was seven, my grandma passed away from ovarian cancer. I was diagnosed with anxiety after that. I would ask my parents, ‘Are you going to die?’”
Then Allgood chimed in. “When I was younger, my dad had prostate cancer,” she said. The students fell silent, and many leaned forward in their chairs to listen. “It was something that impacted my family. I felt it personally. They treated it and he’s OK, but I often think, ‘What would’ve happened if they didn’t catch it early? That freaks me out a lot.”
Students listened while Allgood talked, and nodded respectfully. When she finished, and Stone made a final comment, the young people stood up and got ready to move on to their next class.
Fritz explained that the meeting’s focus on the mental health impact of cancer was a little different from a typical SRC seminar.
“We are trying to broaden the way people think about mental health, including the grief and loss that can go with cancer,” she said. “We’re really trying to think about mental health as wellness and how we take care of our mental health in proactive ways. We don’t always want to have speakers who are talking about diagnosed mental health disorders. Sometimes our meetings have been focused in that direction.”
The group gathered in the library that day was heavily represented by East African students, but, Fritz said, it has historically been attended by a group that more fully represents the many ethnic groups at South. Organizers take pride in that fact, because they want to get their message to as many kids as possible.
“Eva said that once someone came in from the district and asked, ‘What is this group?’ because it is pretty reflective of the student body,” Fritz said. “We’ve never had a good turnout from our Native students, but otherwise historically it has been a pretty rich, racially diverse mix.”
Hussein said that she can’t imagine South High without SRC.
“I think it important space for everyone here,” she said. “I feel that it really supports the culture of well-being and wellness at South. It makes it OK for kids and staff to speak about what’s on their mind, and it helps create a nurturing, supportive space for everybody. Mental health and wellness are at the center of everything we do at South High School. This group, with its long, rich history, is a physical manifestation of that.”