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Meet Alexis Bingham

Today we’d like to introduce you to Alexis Bingham.

Hi Alexis, thanks for sharing your story with us. To start, maybe you can tell our readers some of your backstory.
After losing several people in my community to suicide and overdose, and after attending far too many funerals with friends who had also lost loved ones, a group of us started to wonder what we could do. We started a Facebook group dedicated to investigating how many people from our school district we had lost. Within a few days, we had over 3000 members. While we were collecting data of the people we had lost, we also started hearing stories of survivors.

Young adults and high school students began posting heartbreaking stories of their own mental health struggles and how their school was unable to help them. Some people shared their opinion that their school had exacerbated the problem. We started to bring students to School Board Meetings, and we quickly noticed that there was a major disconnect between what administrators and parents thought was working and what the students were experiencing. From there our mission solidified. It became obvious that in almost every school system decisions are being made without the input of the people who are impacted the most by policy decisions.

Our students had well-thought out and researched opinions that were based on their lived experiences. They had a wealth of knowledge that had yet to be tapped. And with that, the Find the Light Foundation was born. We created a nonprofit that was focused on bridging the gap between students, parents, and administrators by elevating student voices. We train students to advocate for themselves and others, and the civic awareness and leadership skills that our kids have developed have been stunning. The Find the Light Foundation, along with our students, teachers, parents, and experts in developmental and clinical psychology have worked to develop a new way of evaluating school communities and the mental health environments in which our students learn.

Our Needs Assessment involves collecting information and feedback from school staff, parents, and especially students to gain a full understanding of the mental health environment of a school and a community. We talk with students and we let them engage with people their own age about their experiences. We collect the data and present the school with a score and a breakdown of what they are doing well and what can be improved. We give them a roadmap and we stay with them the whole way, always with student voices in the lead. When schools value the input of their students, amazing things happen.

Nobody knows the strengths and weaknesses of a school like its students. Our work focuses on bringing students into the conversation. They are educated and motivated and are a school’s most plentiful resource. They are able to identify problems that only those experiencing them every day can.

The Find the Light Foundation is only about a year old, and already our students have made a big impact; not just on their community, but on themselves and their classmates. Public schools are the largest provider of youth mental health care in the country. They need every tool at their disposal. This year has taught us that the best way to reduce deaths to mental health crises is to lead by listening.

We all face challenges, but looking back would you describe it as a relatively smooth road?
Because we are entirely youth-run, we have struggled building our credibility. We are challenging existing power structures that have been in place for a long time, and when you have a group of teenagers and twenty-somethings going to people with decades of education experience and telling them that the current system isn’t working for modern students, you don’t make many friends. We’ve had a broad range of support. Some officials and administrators loved the initiative of our kids and wanted to support them, and some outright dismissed their concerns or ignored them entirely.

More than once our public statements to the school board were skipped and not read into the record. Teachers told us they wouldn’t work with us due to fear of repercussions. Many people thought that once the initial hurt of losing a classmate had passed that our kids would back down. They didn’t. We showed up to meeting after meeting. We worked incredibly hard to present our ideas in a respectful and constructive manner so that we didn’t come off as just angry kids who didn’t know what we wanted. We researched meticulously and started building a system of our own as a way to save lives even if we couldn’t work with a school directly.

We wrote legislation that would create an infrastructure for health departments to track youth deaths by suicide and overdose to individual school districts so that they have all of the tools necessary to create a positive learning environment. One of our students is also building a one-of-a-kind library of mental health resources that is filterable by individual need so that people of all ages can find the help they need in one place. We built a system to train students on their rights and responsibilities and how to advocate for each other and themselves. Our mission is always to work with schools and advocate for students, but we’re also giving students the tools to advocate for themselves, even if adults choose not to listen.

Appreciate you sharing that. What else should we know about what you do?
Find the Light Foundation is the only group in the United States doing what we do. Our governance is intentionally student-driven so that we always have the perspective of the people we serve. No other foundation focuses on reducing mental health crises by inserting students into policy-making. I’m proud of the ability of our kids to change the world. We have a student on our board who took on a bullying issue at her school and made a huge difference for her classmates.

We also have a 16 year old who has built the most expansive library of resources on the internet. This library is filterable by need and will ensure that people of all ages have access to the mental health resources they need both in a crisis and in everyday life. The library also includes a tool for people to submit the resources that have helped them. This ensures that the library is an ever-growing collection of crowd-sourced mental health resources. To explore and submit, check out resources.findthelightfoundation.org/library.

How do you think about happiness?
The thing that makes me happiest is seeing how kids blossom when you truly value their input. They have such incredible and unique ideas that can make such a huge difference. Our students are creative and bold and unafraid. They are willing to stand up for what’s right and they are remarkably resilient. When they get brushed off, they regroup and try again. They never, ever back down, and they always advocate in memory of the people we’ve lost as well as the ones who are still here. Young people have an incredible passion for everything they do, and it makes me so happy to watch that passion being used to help their community grow and heal.

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Image Credits
Alison Hillman
Zack Diebold

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