Lynda Clayton is young, but she is no stranger to the effects of mental health struggles.
“I first became aware of my own mental health when I was 9 years old. I could feel that something wasn’t right – I was in a bad situation, and I felt like I had nowhere to run,” Clayton, now 17, said.
Clayton was able to start her healing process with the support of family, friends and a nurse practitioner. She wants other young people to have the same opportunity.
“I made a resolution that no one would feel as helpless as I did,” Clayton said.
Clayton believes more mental health resources should be easily accessible in schools, especially in Fort Worth, where Clayton grew up. As a result, the Fort Worth Academy of Fine Arts senior created ‘Not One More: a mission to eliminate youth suicide,’ an easy-to-use curriculum that schools can implement year-round.
The curriculum, made up of about 30 activities that develop healthy mental health habits and help prevent youth suicide, was part of Clayton’s Girl Scout Gold Award project. Gold Award projects are completed by high school age Girl Scouts that tackle community problems and offer solutions.
Most girls spend a year in training and pre-planning, then one to two years implementing their project, said Maria Gregorio, marketing and public relations coordinator for Girl Scouts of Texas Oklahoma Plains.
Clayton, a 12-year member of Girl Scout Troop 2414 in Fort Worth, crafted the different activities so that participants can choose what’s best for them at any time throughout the school year.
Since she was 13, Clayton has wanted to create a suicide prevention program following her own experiences battling mental health challenges.
“Mental health support at my school has been rocky through the years – it’s just a one-chapter health class that we did in seventh grade for a semester, and it is not enough,” Clayton said. “Telling students that they’re worth more than one chapter, one hour a year is how you’re going to destigmatize mental health.”
Growing up put that mission on hold until last year, when Clayton attended the funeral of her brother’s friend who died by suicide – one of the three leading causes of death for people ages 15-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control. She knew it was time to take action.
From 2014-2018, total suicides in Tarrant County increased from 214 to 268, according to the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office. Clayton started her own research by looking through county coroner records to figure out how mental health was taking its toll specifically on youth.
Fort Worth ISD works with Care Solace, an organization that guides the transition of mental health services by coordinating the care across all school and community members.
They provide a web-based tool that aids students, families and staff in connecting with mental health resources, according to Fort Worth ISD. There are also 10 schools in Fort Worth ISD that partner with the Jordan Elizabeth Harris Foundation, which provides suicide prevention training, education for children and adults and depression research funding.
Something was missing from current mental health programs, Clayton said, and she had plans to find the solution.
“There’s still a lot more work in discussing mental health, and truly I believe the only way to effectively do that is to work with students and their mental health year round,” she said.
It’s important to start in a school setting for two reasons: Students spend most of their time at school during the academic school year and classrooms provide a safe environment to learn about mental health and resources, Clayton said.
The state of Texas requires students to participate in a minimum of 1,260 hours per school year and a minimum of seven hours spent in school per day, according to the Education Commission of the States.
Thus, Clayton wrote her own set of activities that could be brought into the classroom.
“One part about this project is that it’s not a one-size fits all effort to eliminate suicide,” Clayton said.
The activities focus on different methods that can be used by the individual, the classroom or during announcements and assemblies. Certain activities help teens with anxiety reduction, others aid in community building within the classroom and some can be used in large-group settings to help students find what they’re passionate about.
The goal of the program is to make it easy to operate so “busy teachers, ambitious students and involved administration can perform any activity in this program,” according to Clayton’s website.
Each of the activities is categorized into nine different prevention methods. Each method outlined in a detailed brochure includes summaries, venues and estimated costs, if any. Clayton’s friends created artwork to make the brochures visually appealing and her dad helped design the website that gives the public access to her materials for free.
Earlier this summer, Clayton had the opportunity to pitch her program to the Fort Worth Academy of Fine Arts and Texas School of the Arts administration.
“They’ve had a while to sit with it and work with it and see where it goes in the school,” Clayton said.
After devoting 100 hours to her project, ”Not One More” went on to receive national recognition by Girl Scouts of America. In 2022, Clayton was one of 13 recipients of the Girl Scouts Gold Award, the highest award in Girl Scouting, in the Girl Scouts of the Texas Oklahoma Plains. She was awarded a national scholarship from Girl Scouts of the USA for her project – an award given to one Gold Award Girl Scout in each of the organization’s 112 councils.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better support system for this project,” Clayton said. “My girl scout troop leaders have a selflessness I really look up to.”
The scholarship committee reviews each project for uniqueness, lasting impact, development and leadership displayed. Before Clayton, no one had created a program that tackled students’ mental health habits and put it in place in a school, Gregorio said.
After completing her final year at Fort Worth Academy of Fine Arts, Clayton plans to attend college and study biochemistry. Eventually, she hopes to earn her Ph.D. and conduct her own scientific research.
For now, Clayton is continuing to refine her project. The program is a living breathing thing, she said, and Clayton wants to hear feedback and ideas once people begin to use it.
“Mental health affects everybody. It is just as important as your physical, spiritual and emotional health,” Clayton said. “A lot of people struggle with their mental health, but I want them to know that resources are out there – seek them out.”
Izzy Acheson is a reporting fellow for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org