Students paint, dance, sing, and drum their way to mental wellness at Annual Student Mental Health Conference

April 18, 2024 – When a famous hip-hop song blared through the speakers, ninth-grader Kendra Rouse hesitated at first. But then, she courageously dove into the circle of fellow students to show off her dance moves.

At first, no one else joined her.

But by the end of the 60-minute “Let’s Move” session at the Student Mental Health Conference this week, Rouse was joined by more than 20 classmates as they wobbled and swayed, shoulder to shoulder, to the beats.

“This was a fun exercise,” said Rouse, a student at Englewood High School. “Emotionally, it was fun to let out the built-up energy I had in myself. Now that I see how it helps my mental health, I will definitely do it more.”

Which is the point, say organizers of the annual conference, which saw participation from more than 400 students across 20 Team Duval high schools.

Whether it’s dancing to music, painting, drawing, or playing board games – the keys to releasing stress and achieving a healthy mental balance are usually within grasp.

“Resources are right at their fingertips,” said Katrina Taylor, the district’s Director of Behavioral Health. “This year’s conference was unique in that it focused on practical strategies and interventions that they can use when they’re not feeling well.”

For example, in addition to the Let’s Move session, students participated in a “Drum Out Your Stress” lesson where they learned how maintaining rhythms helps increase mindfulness. In a much quieter room nearby, there was a sense of calm as the students used coloring pencils or water colors to shade in inspirational quotes on a canvas like “I have a purpose.” And in another room, presenters used a card game to lead students into discussions on topics like how they solved problems, carried joy, and created trust.

While many of the topics are not new, one unique component this year was that nearly half of the sessions were led by students. 

“Students listening to students is so vital because it makes them realize that they’re not alone,” said Taylor.

Ta’Karie Powell, an 11th grader at Ribault High School, was one of the student leaders who trained with Taylor’s team this year to lead a workshop. Powell said students helping students is effective because they can relate to each other.

“It’s very important to me because it allows for our student body to be free and to have a voice and to finally uncover their mask,” said Powell.

The theme of this year’s conference was “Behind the Mask,” which organizers say is in reference to children camouflaging  their mental health concerns in an effort to fit in with their peers.

Event sponsors include the Patrick Heinold Foundation, the Jacksonville Public Education Fund, Hazel Health and Goodwill.

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