Seattle Public Library:
Nourishing Teen Mental Health

by Colin Angevine

A Case Study from the Connected Wellbeing Impact Studio

In spring of 2022, fliers posted on the walls in teen centers at public libraries in Seattle featured an eye-grabbing, brightly colored graphic and the headline: “Nourishing Minds.” The text below invited the reader to “Explore, collaborate, and make a real impact on mental well-being. You’ll have the chance to team up with your peers and dive into design challenges that can transform the way we think about and support mental health. No design experience needed.”

This open call to Seattle teens was part of Nourishing Minds, an initiative supported by the Institute of Museum and Library Services and The Seattle Public Library Foundation. In the weeks that followed, teen participants and staff members at The Seattle Public Library worked collaboratively to design ways to support teen wellbeing. The result of this partnership: a published collection (a “cookbook”) of step-by-step instructions for activities (“recipes”) that adult library staffers can facilitate with teens — and an accompanying card deck. The activities range from creative ways to cope with daily stressors to reimagining physical spaces to be more welcoming. Together these resources engage teens in co-creating a greater sense of belonging, developing healthy strategies for navigating challenges, and building stronger relationships with their community. The Seattle Public Library is now piloting these resources with other libraries around the country, and soon with youth development programs outside of libraries, spreading their commitment to supporting youth wellbeing to more places.

About the Connected Wellbeing Initiative

The Connected Wellbeing Initiative brings together researchers, designers, educators, and funders to accelerate youth and community-powered innovations for fostering wellbeing in a digitally connected world. The Initiative’s Impact Studio supports early- to mid-stage innovations that model the core principles and approaches of connected wellbeing:

Principles
  • Young people are leaders and sources of strategies, as well as beneficiaries.
  • Caring relationships and communities are tapped as essential supports for wellbeing.
  • Solutions grow from youth identities, interests, lived experience, culture, and communities.
Approaches
  • Connecting to people who get you
  • Harnessing tech for equity and inclusion
  • Diversifying and amplifying youth voice

The Seattle Public Library is one of 11 innovations in the Impact Studio that benefits from personalized advising, capacity building opportunities, and cross-sector connections to accelerate impact and build shared purpose. This case study highlights some of the innovative and meaningful ways that Seattle Public Library supports youth wellbeing in the digital age.

Examples of warm-up activities in the Nourishing Minds cookbook.

In this case study, we take a closer look at the Nourishing Minds cookbook, recipes, and card deck, and discuss the connected wellbeing approaches taken in these resources. We close with information on how youth programs around the country — both inside and outside of libraries — can also partner with The Seattle Public Library to start cooking up healthier spaces for teens.

History and Context

Teen participants and librarians discuss commonalities in identifying stressors in their lives.

The Creating Space for Teen Mental Health initiative is the latest in a series of programs The Seattle Public Library has offered teens with a focus on mental health and wellbeing. During widespread lockdowns early in the Covid-19 pandemic, the library ran “VRtality,” a program that distributed virtual reality headsets to teens at their homes and hosted meetups and activities online. This effort was successful but hugely complex – the headsets were unfamiliar to most of the teens and adults in the program, and facilitating high quality activities in VR had a steep learning curve.

But the experience proved invaluable in other ways, allowing staff to identify a genuine need in the community for programming to support teen wellbeing during such tumultuous times. Luis Gonsalez, Digital Media and Learning Program Coordinator, describes this program in 2020 as “a proving ground for that discovery of need.” And while the program did yield high enthusiasm from the community for supporting youth wellbeing, the technical challenges were a high cost. In the end, Juan Rubio, Digital Media and Learning Program Manager at SPL, and the rest of the team concluded they needed to stop focusing on using VR and instead, as Juan explains, “concentrate on a more flexible tool that would be easier for people to use to achieve the same goals.”

Nourishing Minds launched shortly thereafter. VR headsets were exchanged for low-tech, adaptable resources that library staff could use: a book and a card deck that support in-person activities with teens. Using metaphors of everyday home cooking that everyone could understand, the “cookbook” and accompanying card deck are an approachable tool for library staff members to plan and facilitate experiences to engage teens in creative, collaborative activities that support their wellbeing.

Research Background: Equity through co-design

Involving diverse users of technologies and programs in design is essential for correcting dominant biases and achieving equity. These commitments are particularly important when serving youth and other marginalized groups whose backgrounds differ from the perspectives of designers or program providers. Power dynamics and differences in background between adults and youth must also be addressed for solutions to effectively serve youth needs and achieve equity goals. Research has documented many cases where limited stakeholder input meant new technologies intended to broaden access resulted in more benefits to already privileged groups. The development of the Nourishing Minds Cookbook reflects methods from Youth-adult co-design and participatory action research that have resulted in solutions that reflect the genuine needs and culture of diverse groups of young people.

Connected Wellbeing in Action

Teen participants create a persona with traits to discuss mental health topics related to them.

In the following vignettes, we share a few brief moments that capture the essence of the Nourishing Minds program. We discuss how these moments illustrate connected wellbeing approaches and how they proactively foster youth wellbeing, doing so joyfully, and normalizing it in order to be approachable for youth.

A stick figure named Sunshine

Meet Sunshine: Sunshine is a junior in high school, a dedicated basketball player, and is stressed about prom that’s coming up in a few weeks. Sunshine is also a stick figure, terribly (and hilariously) drawn by library staff as laughing teenagers call out instructions: “Bigger eyes!” “They should be wearing a backpack!” “Wait, is that supposed to be their arm?!”
On the first day of Nourishing Minds, library staff facilitate an activity where youth create personas of different characters that they will revisit in the future. Each persona embodies a different set of traits that are familiar to the youth participants, while also providing a safe distance: in a room full of peers, it can be easier for the teens to talk about Sunshine’s nervousness about prom than talk about their own. As Luis puts it, personas can give teens a way “to be heard, but not necessarily seen… It can give them a way to share a little bit about themselves without actually sharing about themselves.”
Sunshine and other stick figure personas reappear on the walls during each of the group’s meetings over the following weeks. Library staff revisit these characters and facilitate new activities that help teen participants talk about mental health and develop strategies for coping with stressors, using the characters as proxies to discuss relatable experiences. Luis provides a few examples:
Let’s say the next session is about daily stressors, then we can create a storyboard of Sunshine’s day. What is Sunshine doing in the morning? What are they doing at school? We can have activities based around identifying stressors, identifying moments that might be able to calm them from the things that are stressing them, or to change their outlook or perspective.
Creating the persona and this day-in-the-life storyboard are simple, low-tech activities that library staff facilitate in a joyful and collaborative way. Through this activity, stigmas begin to melt and teen participants develop more comfort in the community that is able to talk openly about everyday challenges of being a high schooler.

Research Background: Meeting youth where they are

Too often, wellbeing oriented programs and technologies designed by educators and researchers are not accessed or taken up by young people. Research has documented numerous disconnects. Products are rarely tailored to youth language and culture, particularly for young people from minoritized communities. Nourishing Minds addresses this challenge by meeting youth where they are—honoring their lived experience within a playful context. Research also suggests that offering a safe conversational space and relatable content can normalize mental health challenges, and open up opportunities to address them.

sunshine-traits

Teens wrote characteristics for the persona named Sunshine.

What’s cookin’

Personas and storyboarding are two activities in “Nourishing Minds: Cooking up Spaces for Teen Mental Health.” This “cookbook” provides guidance for adults who work with youth, helping them put together activities like these (and over 50 more) into “recipes” for meaningful group experiences.

Warm up activities in the cookbook include:
  • “Leave it at the door” — A 5-minute warm-up activity that helps participants make an active choice to set aside things that are weighing on them.
  • “The boat” — A reflection activity that helps participants consider what is helping to “keep them afloat” and what makes them feel like they’re “sinking.”
  • “Attention and space” — An opportunity to observe how the physical spaces we inhabit affect where we direct our attention, which “is to our mental wellbeing what nutrition is to physical health.” (Adopted from Friends of Attention)
Teen participants use the boat warm-up to reflect on how to manage stressors in their life.

This list is only a start: activities, topics, opportunities, and constraints in the cookbook can all be combined in different ways to engage teens in thinking about their own wellbeing.

Although youth mental health can be a heavy topic, Nourishing Minds takes a joyful approach that emphasizes awareness, care, and collaboration. Juan recalls teen participants bracing for “a very serious program” with lectures and tedious homework. Teens did not expect to laugh their way through creating a persona like Sunshine, or working together with library staff to make the physical space of the teen room more welcoming.

Research Background: Positive youth development

SPL embodies a positive youth development (PYD) approach by giving youth spaces and opportunities to exercise their own agency and voice. PYD takes a holistic approach to youth development that recognizes the importance of healthy relationships, safety, and emotional support in addition to skill and knowledge development. Research in this tradition has documented the powerful individual and collective outcomes of supporting youth leadership, agency, and voice. Nourishing Minds embodies methods from Youth-adult co-design and participatory action research that have resulted in solutions that reflect the genuine needs and culture of diverse groups of young people.

As Luis reflects on this approach, he remarks that the cookbook is not “so heavy handed with saying ‘This is for your mental health.’ Or ‘You’re gonna come here and that’s what we’re going to do.’” Instead, the activities are co-created with the teen participants, following where their interests lead. While some groups invent Sunshine, for example, other groups will create entirely different personas. The activities themselves can change too: by putting together different combinations of cards from the deck, no experience is identical to another. This creative, approachable model supports staff and youth working together, rather than adults telling everyone else what to do. “It’s not necessarily that I have the answer and I’m going to tell [teen participants] how to get there,” Luis explains, “but it’s more about being able to effectively push them in the right direction through these activities so that they’re able to discover for themselves really what’s most beneficial for for their own mental health.”

Reaching youth early

The creativity, collaboration, and joyful approach that Nourishing Minds takes isn’t surprising just to the teens, who at first expected something prescriptive and boring — it can be surprising to adults who are unfamiliar too. “When people talk about teen mental health, they tend to really go to the crisis moment,” Juan reflects. But teen mental health and wellbeing isn’t limited to crisis moments like suicidal ideation or self harm. “What we’re trying to do is to get at teen mental health way before the crisis occurs, so that you are making them aware and creating some education around mental health” in a broader and more holistic way.

Just as library staff members collaborate with teens when cooking up the recipes, the guiding vision for the work has been developed in collaboration with experts and professors in youth development and mental health at the University of Washington. “We’ve learned from speaking to professors at UW that mental health really is a spectrum and it’s not necessarily an on and off switch,” says Luis. Put differently, it’s not just that some people are “healthy” and other people are “unhealthy.” Rather than a clear binary, youth wellbeing can be more fluid and contextual: some life stressors can be a challenge for anyone to bear, regardless how well they’re doing otherwise; and folks who face chronic challenges also have strengths and assets too. “And I think that resonated a lot with the teens,” Luis continued, “really taking in that perspective of mental health as a spectrum.”

When people talk about teen mental health, they tend to really go to the crisis moment. What we’re trying to do is to get at teen mental health way before the crisis occurs, so that you are making them aware and creating some education around mental health.

– Juan Rubio, Digital Media and Learning Program Manager at SPL

With this spectrum in mind, the program is designed to reach kids early — well before a crisis moment arrives. By doing this, the program “normalizes the conversations around mental health, where it’s okay to openly bring up the subject, where it’s not a taboo anymore. There’s not a stigmatization around mental health, but we can just talk about it and be aware that that is a very important aspect in our lives and their lives.” Supported by research, therapeutic approaches like acceptance and commitment therapy, expert guidance, and the safety of a supportive community, the cookbook and activities help adults and teens navigate the tumultuous seas of adolescence.

Conclusion

Rainier Beach Library teens and staff at the end of the Nourishing Minds program.

The Seattle Public Library is continuing to improve the materials in Nourishing Minds as partner programs in libraries around the country pilot them with teens. Up next, Nourishing Minds is going to land in a broad range of youth programs — not just in libraries. If you would like to learn more about Nourishing Minds and how you might use the cookbook, recipes, and card deck with teens that you work with, contact Juan Rubio at Juan.Rubio@spl.org. For a preview of the cookbook before the final version is published later in 2024, sign up for early access here.

This case study was produced in partnership with Seattle Public Library and the Connected Learning Lab at UC Irvine, with the support of Brian Cross, research consultant; Mimi Ito, Connected Learning Lab Director at UC Irvine; and Krithika Jagannath, postdoctoral scholar at UC Berkeley’s Institute of Human Development. We also thank the communications and web team at the Connected Learning Alliance for their work on layout and design.