Honors students in “Take Action: Mentoring Youth Who Have Differing Abilities” this semester are engaging with high school students in the community to help them overcome their mental health issues as they transition into adulthood.
“Take Action” was created and is taught by Chippewa County Public Health Director Angela Weideman. A mental health clinician, Weideman focuses on basic mental health, but also on cases of trauma and recovery throughout the course. She has partnered with Eau Claire Memorial High School and the Western Regional Center for Children and Youth with Special Health Care Needs to bring this mentoring program to life.
“Honors students learn the basics of mental health and mentoring, and then work with kids who have diagnoses of anxiety and depression,” says Weideman. “Mentors are teaching some basic general coping skills to the students, asking them what their plans are after high school, and helping them learn how to manage their health care. The course is focused on transition; that transition kids make from high school to what’s after high school—whether that’s college, technical school, or the workforce.”
Pairs of Honors student mentors meet with their mentees at Memorial once a week for eight weeks. When the course was first taught a few years ago, the mentoring was only six weeks, but both the mentors and mentees wanted more time together, to further engage and develop those relationships. After the weekly mentoring sessions, Honors students use class time for processing and reflection.
“I think that is really rich learning for the Honor students,” says Weideman, “because they may not be experiencing the same thing that another one of their classmates is, but it might be coming in a week or two, and so then they know what to do and how to have those difficult conversations with their mentees.”
Weideman says the high school students love the program. Although they are not the same age as their mentors, the age gap is close enough so that the help they are receiving is viewed as peer support rather than therapy.
“I think that my partner and I have provided a great outlet for our assigned high school student to share concerns and areas of struggle,” says nursing and Honors student Lauren Bussian. “I have been positively impacted as I find it incredibly inspiring to see our student persevere through some pretty difficult life experiences. Additionally, I feel that I have become a better active listener and communicator through it all.”
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly one in six U.S. adults live with a mental illness. Weideman affirms that means these students will most likely be affected by mental health concerns at some point in their life, either personally or professionally.
“I have students that have backgrounds in business, actuarial science, geology, you name it, and they have all been able to learn relevant things from the course. Many students have a family member or friend who has been affected by mental health, and I think that they want to understand mental health better, but they might not necessarily want to be a psych major. And some of them just professionally want to know how they’re going to be able to connect with people in the future,” says Weideman
“I am excited to see the process of working with the students and the development that we can help accompany them along,” says Kallie Medenwald, an Honors student studying communication sciences and disorders. “I have learned more about myself and developed a greater knowledge about mentoring that I can utilize in my future as either a speech-language pathologist or audiologist.”
As the course prepares the high school students for their transition to legal, medical, professional, and recreational adulthood, the Honors students learn a lot about coping strategies and health care too. For instance, how to find an adult health care provider after leaving a pediatric provider.
“It’s really interesting because the students in the class are still transitioning themselves,” says Weideman. “They’re trying to help other people transition but they’re learning a lot about their own transition at the same time.”
Weideman says the students in her course are high-achieving, caring people, and she enjoys seeing them grow throughout the semester.
“I think many students are a bit apprehensive at the start of the course, and by the end of the semester they’re like flowers that have bloomed. Every student I’ve seen has had development in social skills and engagement, and they’re more confident and comfortable.”
Through the mentoring experience, guest speakers, and class discussions, “Take Action: Mentoring Youth Who Have Differing Abilities” sheds light on the mental health problems facing many into adulthood. The community partnerships and dedicated work of these Honors student mentors will help to ease these transitions moving forward, and positively impact the Eau Claire community for time to come.