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Student Success Stories


Hello. My name is Oliver and I am 19 years old. I am a recent high school graduate and have been a Youth Board member and officer for 5 years. This fall I will be attending the University of Iowa.

I have lots of hobbies including reading, listening to music, traveling, and watching sports.

Anxiety has been a major challenge for me, and I have discovered that reading is a good coping tool. It kind of settles me down.

The best tip I could give you today would be to see each and every person through their abilities and not their disabilities.

~ Oliver


My name is Katie. I am 17 years old and going into 12th grade. I’ve been on the Youth Board for two years and am diagnosed with non-verbal learning disorder, generalized anxiety, and bipolar disorder. I am an artist and poet, a bookworm and I love going on adventures with friends. My loved ones are very important to me, and I like to volunteer.

I’ve always been over-emotional and strange. At school when kids teased me, I’d get very upset and then would get into trouble when I over-reacted. I was hospitalized five times in the past year and after the fourth hospitalization was diagnosed with bipolar. This made a lot of sense to me. I also have been in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy which has been great. It taught me how to stay emotionally stable and helped me like myself.

In order to support teenager who is mentally ill, you have to understand the mental illness they have and how it affects them personally. Don’t assume that they have every symptom or that you have to act a special way. Be as supportive as you can and try to walk in their shoes.

~ Katie


I am Brenda and I am 16 years old. I am going into the 9th grade this fall. I am involved in the PACER Youth Advisory Board because my parents asked the advocates for help. I have been on the board for three years.

I am a certified lifeguard, a singer and I write and record music using GarageBand. I love camping and other outdoor activities. I also have been diagnosed with depression, panic disorder, and visual processing disorder. This combination can really be tricky and difficult to manage, especially at school when there is a lot going on. I manage my mental health needs by swimming laps, jumping rope, doing Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, medication, special education, and avoiding caffeine or sitting in front of a screen for too long.

I have done some writing about my disabilities to help others understand the challenges of having them. I don’t want people to have bad information and feel fearful of teenagers like myself who seem moody.

The best thing you can do to help teenagers like myself is to get informed. Don’t make assumptions about what you see, instead use your energy in a positive way to give us the chance to be the best we can be.

~ Brenda

My Story by Mike Madson

Mental disabilities are things that make your brain work differently from brains that don’t have them. So basically it makes a person with one think differently. Mental disabilities can help, hurt, or do both. I have a mental disability called autism. I am considered high functioning. Because of it, some things are easy for me, but some are challenging. Usually, I just act like a normal person, but in certain situations, I act different than most people. Some good things it does for me is that it makes me smart and able to figure out things easily. Some bad things it does for me is that it makes me nervous when I’m in a certain situation, like giving a speech in front of others or playing in a championship game. From my experiences, having mental disabilities aren’t as daunting as most people think. That said, I am very proud that I have achieved, despite my disability, the rank of Eagle Scout, made good grades in school, made National Honor Society, made Link Crew, made Minnesota All-State Choir, and been part of eight Minnesota Adaptive Sports State High School Championship Teams in three years (including four All-Tournament Teams, in soccer and floor hockey). I believe that hard work and determination can help a person achieve lot more than thought possible.

I have done a lot of therapies over the years to help me with my autism. You name it, and I have probably done it. My family has been very fortunate that I can do all of them here in Minnesota. Some of the therapies I have done are speech (ten years), occupational, horseback riding, music, and listening with headphones. I have participated in social skills groups and go to classes at West Metro Learning Connections in a young men’s group. I have also participated in Special Olympics swimming, earning quite a few gold medals. That’s been really cool!

Some of the things I struggle with are keeping up with my homework. I am really smart and get good grades; however sometimes I have to work harder and longer than others to accomplish the same assignments and I do some work with a tutor and get help from teachers when I need it. One class I had to work really hard in was AP Chemistry. Science and math are my strengths; however, I have to put more time into them compared to other students. Despite my autism, I have worked hard and made good grades.

My family has always expected me to participate in activities and not to use my autism as an excuse not to help around the house or to misbehave. I have always gone to restaurants, sporting events and movies. My family likes to bike ride and scuba dive together. We attend church together and I help in one of the third grade classrooms. By being around people, I learn to generalize when I have learned, and also have learned my manners and how to behave appropriately.

I really don’t know what my future holds, but do any of us know this? I hope to go to college and I would like to be a mechanical engineer. I think the skills and perseverance I learned in Scouts will help me. I hope to live independently and contribute to society. Maybe I will even get married someday. If I had to go back to the day I was born, I don’t think I would change anything. My autism is a part of me, and it is all I know. I feel like it has helped me and not hindered me.

Post script: Mike is a sophomore at Augsburg College studying Environmental Studies.  He has made the Dean’s list 2 out of 3 semesters, participates in the Augsburg Choir and will be performing with them at Carnegie Hall, March 2015.


My name is Ryan. I am a 16-year-old junior at Green Tree High School. I have been on the Youth Board for 3 years and am currently serving as Vice President. That means I get to run the meetings when the President is not there- and so far I have been able to be in charge of 2 meetings. I loved it!

I can improvise on the piano, ukulele and guitar and love to listen to music. Currently I am spending a lot of time working towards my Eagle Scout rank in Boy Scouts.

I have also been diagnosed with ASD and bipolar disorder. I can become irritable and really hyper at times. When that happens I try to take deep breaths or leave the situation and do something physical like go for a bike ride.

Being a teen with these disabilities is not easy. Remember we are people just like you, we are just more sensitive to our triggers. Help us find ways to avoid our triggers and be gentle when taking care of us.

~ Ryan


My name is Rose. I am 14 years old. This is my first year on the children’s mental health youth board at PACER Center. I joined the youth board to meet other kids who have similar struggles and to help reduce stigma. I am diagnosed with bipolar disorder and anxiety. I’m hoping that by getting to know me you will have a better understanding of who kids living with mental illness really are and not just what society says about us.

I like to act and sing, I like to ride horses, I like to write poetry, and I like to babysit.

I am just like you, I look like a “typical” teen. I go to school, I hang out with friends, I do homework and I do all of the regular things that other kids do. But every day I struggle a little bit with my thoughts and my moods which can make it more difficult for me to get through the day and go with the flow.

When I was younger, I had a lot of struggles in school and I had to change schools many times because it was hard for me to regulate my emotions and anger. I felt that most people outside of my family misunderstood me and thought that my behaviors were always my choices and that I could control them. Their reactions and attitudes towards me made me feel like a bad kid. During these years, I also spent time in the hospital and day treatment settings.

One thing I want to tell other kids is to not give up hope. Don’t keep things inside and don’t be afraid to get help.

Now that I have found a better environment and I have teachers who believe in me, I have been able to feel more successful and understood. Even though I still struggle, I feel like I am on my way to feeling more proud of myself and accepted.

I have learned that I have my disorder, but my disorder does not have me.

~ Rose


Hello. My name is Tatum and I am 18 years old. I have been on PACER’s Youth Advisory Board on Mental Health for three years and am currently the Secretary. I joined the Youth Board because my friend Dennis invited me. I was curious to see what it was about. I had a good time when I came to a meeting and realized that the other teenagers were a lot like me. It felt empowering to be working on developing my self-advocacy and leadership skills with my peers. I am also a transition student at AIM, which stands for Achieving Independence and Maturity – a program at a charter school.

It’s not all that hard. Just trust your instincts. If something is wrong, it probably is. Don’t be afraid to take chances, make decisions, or trust yourself. Listen to us, too. We can give you lots of information about what we need; we just need your help with getting it done.


My name is Nyk, and I just turned 18 years old. I recently graduated from high school and am continuing my education at a transition program. I have been on PACER’s Youth Advisory Board for three years. One fall, I came to an Open House that the Children’s Mental Health Project held and heard the Youth Advisory Board members talk about their experiences as teenagers with mental health needs. I wanted to help others with mental health needs like me; so, I joined the Board. I love knowing that I am making a difference in other people’s lives.

If you have a teen with mental health needs or are working with a teen with mental health needs, please be tender, loving, but not hovering over them every step of the way. Be respectful with your help and ready to help, but sometimes from a distance is just fine!!


Hello! I am Isaiah and am 16 years old. I’m a 10th grade student at a charter school. I have been on PACER’s Youth Advisory Board on Mental Health for 4 years. I am the current Board President. I joined the Youth Board because I experienced bullying related to my disability for many years, and I wanted to learn how to take charge in a positive way and become a leader. It’s taken me some time to feel confident enough to share my story, but I am proud of what I can accomplish through the Youth Board.

One thing I would want you to remember if you have a teenager with mental health needs or are working with a teen with mental health needs, would be to have patience, compassion, understanding and above all else – an open mind.


I am Aaron and I am 16 years old and am a 10th grade student at local senior high school. I have been on the Youth Advisory Board for just one year. I joined because my mom, who is an advocate at PACER Center, encouraged me to find a place where I could be with other teens who, like me, have stories and experiences to share about their life. I think my story cane be shared to make a difference in how teens with mental health needs should be treated and taught.

If I could give you a tip to remember if you have a teenager like me or are working with a teenager with mental health needs, it would be to use us as a resource to help each other. There are a lot of teenagers just like us who know how to help other teens and who can help you as well!!


I am 19 years old and a first-year student at a transition program.  This is my first year on the Youth Board, and I have enjoyed every meeting I have attended. I wanted to join this group because I have been trying to help stop the stigma on mental illness on my own and being in this Board not only helps me with my goal, but I am with others that want the same thing.

When I was 8 years old, I was diagnosed with ADHD, and when I was 12 years old I was diagnosed with Bipolar, anxiety and depression.  For four years, I struggled to find a medication that would help me, and for four years I had to fight to get it right.  My mom sat me down one day and made me promise to never to give up. I am a poet, a singer and an artist.

Never give up!

*Some of the names of people and places in these stories have been changed to protect the privacy of participants.