Hundreds of high school students from around New Hampshire harnessed the power of peer-to-peer discussions Friday to tell policymakers about the pressures they face and what kinds of support they need.
The two-day Youth Summit hosted by Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health grew out discussions that former State Supreme Court Chief Justice John Broderick has been having at schools around the state about behavioral health. Broderick, the health system's director of public affairs, was seriously injured in 2002 when he was attacked by his son, who at the time suffered from an undiagnosed mental illness.
The students' response to those talks highlighted other challenges they face, and health officials decided to partner with them in seeking answers, said Dr. Joanne Conroy, Dartmouth-Hitchcock's president and CEO.
"It feels like there's got to be some solutions that we can create with them," she said.
About 350 students participated in the first day of the summit, which included discussion groups focused on mental health, diversity and respect, school violence, substance use, academic pressures, and race and gender equality.
The focus turns to adults on Saturday with a program called, "They're Talking: Are We Listening?"
Quincy Roy, a sophomore at Manchester Memorial High School, contrasted Friday's event with another summit she attended several years ago.
"It was by the adults for the youth," she said of the earlier gathering. "Being here is really great because it's all youth-to-youth. We're not being lectured by an adult. We have guidance but it's mainly being led by youth."
The first discussion she attended focused on substance abuse and included suggestions about how school administrators could focus less on punishment and more on support.
"I really hope we can continue this because I've seen a lot of progress, and I've heard a lot of different perspectives from so many different people on how to help their communities and their schools," she said.
Gov. Chris Sununu opened the conference by emphasizing the importance of hearing directly from young people as the state tries to rebuild its mental health treatment system.
"Concord can do a lot of things but unless we're talking to the right people, it doesn't really matter," he said.
He implored students to address the negative effects of social media, saying he believes it is at the root of many problems.
"I'm one of the youngest governors in the country, but I'll tell you this is one thing that my generation really screwed up badly: social media and the ability to responsibly use technology," said Sununu, who is 44.
Though he admits to being on social media multiple times a day, Sununu called it the "bane of human existence" and said it leads to unhealthy detachment.
"I don't know how fix it and I don't know if you know how to fix it, but we're really counting on you," he said. "Because the more ability we have to build one-on-one connections, personal connections, with each other, the more it helps us understand how we work out problems, how we team build, how we deal with stresses."
Students are staying off social media at least when Broderick visits their schools.
At one recent event, the retired judge spoke for 40 minutes then stayed another 90 minutes to talk individually with students, some of whom spoke candidly about their own mental health challenges.
"I've hugged hundreds and hundreds of kids," he said in an interview. "These kids want to talk about it. They don't want to be ashamed."
-- Holly Ramer, Associated Press