When planning a conference on the topic of youth mental health, it is essential for youth to be the driving force behind the conference planning. After all, youth best understand how to make a conference relevant and impactful for other youth – while channeling their own personal experiences and those of their peers.
Using my own experiences with organizing TeenzTalk’s annual Teen Wellness Conference in the San Francisco Bay Area, this article will outline four of the essential components to planning an impactful youth-led wellness conference.
- In order to put on a conference that fosters connection and a sense of community, conference planning members must be aware of including presentations and content that is relevant to attendees from a wide range of experiences and backgrounds. This means awareness around underrepresented populations of youth.
- Empower youth from underrepresented backgrounds to share their stories and present at the conference, in order to inspire attendees and audience members who can relate to their narratives and allow them to understand that they are not alone. A conference that embraces and emphasizes a diverse range of experiences and identities – especially a conference focused on wellness and mental health – will excel in establishing a safe space for attendees to converse and learn freely.
- This same awareness around inclusivity applies to conference outreach, ensuring that youth in all areas of the community have access to attending the conference. Eliminate any and all barriers; for example, the Teen Wellness Conference eliminates any financial barriers by making the conference free for youth to attend and by also having travel sponsorships available for attendees who request them to cover their transportation or travel costs.
2: Youth voice
- Similar to the point about inclusivity, it is important to recognize that youth voice comes in all different shapes, forms, and sizes. Include youth planning members who can speak to various communities, levels of engagement, and levels of experience. It helps to gather youth input on conference activities from across the spectrum, which means talking to youth who are currently facing mental health challenges as well as youth who are in the recovery stage as well as youth who have been impacted by their loved ones’ mental health challenges, and everything in between these.
3: Ensuring relevance
- Ask youth – both youth on the conference planning team and other youth within the community at-large – what topics related to mental health and wellness are most important to them. What topics would they like to learn more about? For example, would they like to learn more about breaking down mental health depictions in the media, or basic self-care routines, or how to support a friend who is struggling with their mental health? What types of activities would they like to engage in? For example, would they prefer interacting in small-group breakout sessions, or listening to a speaker as a plenary session, or engaging in a meditation activity to set their intention for the day, or a little bit of all of the above? Directly asking youth these questions will ensure that the conference structure is a good fit for attendees.
- When spearheading a youth-driven conference, it is important to understand that the youth who are helping to plan the event are volunteering their time and energy. Make sure that youth planning members feel heard and validated; their opinions and remarks often stem from personal experience, and therefore, it is vital to listen deeply to all that they have to say.
- Regularly show gratitude and appreciation toward all youth who help in the conference planning process. From my own experience, youth truly become invested when they know that their contributions to the planning matter and when they feel appreciated.
- Be flexible with youth planning member’s busy schedules, and include alternative ways for planning members to contribute and be updated if they are unable to physically make the meetings.
Witnessing the final outcome of a youth-driven planning process is invaluable. I have seen this at the past two Teen Wellness Conferences and once again in the planning process of this year’s 2019 Teen Wellness Conference, which will be held in September.
Attendees write in their feedback forms that the conference is a transformative, healing experience for them, and the greatest take-away across all attendees’ feedback is that they are able to find and connect with others who have had similar experiences and find hope in their mental health journeys. One attendee from the 2018 Teen Wellness Conference sums this up well, “I feel calm knowing that I’m not the only one with mental illness and that I have tons of resources available to me”.
Photos Courtesy of TeenzTalk