Chris Harnish lifts his head — which is topped with a blue ball cap — flashes a smile and glances at the students on his computer screen. During a recent Zoom interview, he hails the four Mercer Island High School (MIHS) seniors as some of the prevention professionals of the future.
The students’ mouths form into grins as they listen intently to Harnish, who is a member of the Mercer Island Youth and Family Services (YFS) staff and adviser to their vital MIHS Minds Matter and SAFE clubs.
“These guys have embraced it as a priority for themselves, giving up their time, have used their creativity and their energy to raise awareness, to educate and to promote healthy lifestyle choices by their peers,” said Harnish, a substance abuse specialist, certified counselor and certified prevention professional.
Based at MIHS, Harnish spends his days, “Helping young people navigate the non-academic side of their world as they move through high school. Providing them support and opportunities as needed,” he said.
SAFE (Super Awesome Fun Events) took shape about five or six years ago in the mind of a student who was concerned about what was happening in their friend group. The student wanted to hammer home the dangers of drugs, alcohol and tobacco by bringing healthy living to the discussion table and introducing clean-and-sober events on the weekends.
Senior Nima Taherzadeh, SAFE co-president with senior Hunter Evans, joined the club last year and feels it’s important to help lead the way in focusing on one’s physical health. Two years ago, the club zeroed in on drinking and driving prevention, and last year members addressed vaping issues and overdoses.
“I think it’s super important to help educate others and also educate myself,” said Taherzadeh, whose club has eight members.
On the Minds Matter front, senior Joyce Zhang brought the club into existence two years ago after listening to Dr. Suniya Luthar of Arizona State University discuss academic and social pressures in an MIHS leadership class. The teen development expert also spoke with parents and teachers during her visit to the Island.
Working in tandem with the city’s Healthy Youth Initiative, Minds Matters promotes mental health awareness amongst students.
During Luthar’s talk, “It kind of got me thinking, like, ‘Oh, we don’t really talk about this as much as we should be.’ What does healthy mental health even look like? When should you get help? How does it affect our relationships with each other overall?” said club president Zhang, noting that Minds Matters has 10 active members.
Since its inception, club members have shifted their focus to relationship building. This aspect has become especially crucial during the pandemic as members have become even closer connected by addressing isolation, focusing on each others’ well-being and validating members for their accomplishments — big and small. Harnish praised the members for devising a surviving COVID guide, which listed ways for people to stay entertained during quarantine with movies, books and more.
Zhang said mental health covers a broad spectrum and none of the issues can be ignored.
“Whatever your situation is, it can be validated. It’s worthwhile to recognize if you want to seek out help,” she said.
Minds Matter vice president and senior Noah Hendelman wanted to find a place to discuss mental health, but didn’t want to visit a counselor or therapist. He felt a student-to-student environment would be an ideal spot to share his feelings about school issues.
“I felt like a lot of school was just churning out numbers and learning and not really supporting and developing yourself as a listener,” he said. At Minds Matter, they “try to help create a safe space for kids to do that.”
As a freshman, Hendelman said he wasn’t comfortable talking about himself, but with several high school years and experiences under his belt, he’s become much more secure with his feelings.
Senior and Minds Matter officer Sabrina Hubbell said the club is a great resource for people. Midway through last year, Zhang noticed that Hubbell would be a good addition to the club and invited her to join up.
“I’ve been really vulnerable on social media and trying to encourage people to show more of the reality of what life is actually like,” Hubbell said.
Hubbell said she didn’t want to speak with counselors because she felt her problems weren’t bad enough. She knows that’s not true and noted that everyone’s problems are worth discussing. And she feels it’s crucial to have teenagers’ peers paving the way to mental health awareness through Minds Matter.