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Nonprofit's moves give young people a chance to help peers with mental health

Kelly Boucher works in her office at the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Sarasota.
Jim DeLa
Community News Collaborative
Kelly Boucher works in her office at the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Sarasota.

Depression and anxiety are leading causes of mental illness for teenagers. Youth MOVE, a group of Sarasota teens and young adults, is helping others cope with these issues.

A local group led entirely by young adults is creating safe spaces and activities to help people ages 10 to 29 cope with mental health issues.

Its mission is to bring together people in this age group who have experienced a mental health condition, or are friends or family of people who have, said Youth Move Suncoast President Kelly Boucher.

The group organizes activities, such as a recent beach cleanup. They also hold weekly virtual support group meetings for youth, young adults and families.

"Overall, we just want them in a community together supporting each other," Boucher said.

The need is there, said Boucher, who added the group sees 500 to 600 people a year.

"We've been getting a lot more referrals lately," she noted. "I have about seven families that I see weekly, and I'm getting a few more this week. But a lot of times, I'm talking about family navigation. Some of the parents just want resources."

The staff and volunteers are not therapists. However, group leaders like Boucher are state-certified peer support specialists. They do not provide actual therapy or diagnose conditions. But they are trained to draw on personal experiences with mental health or recovery issues to offer peer-to-peer support.

That can work to their advantage, Boucher said. "I think that professionals sometimes tend to scare people, especially younger kids," she said. "So, when we come in and we're just like, 'Hey, I've been through it in high school; like, middle school sucked for me, too ‘ ... I think that just automatically helps them connect better."

Just 2 years old, Youth MOVE Suncoast was recently named chapter of the year by the Youth MOVE Nationalorganization, which has more than 50 chapters around the county.

"Youth MOVE Suncoast has worked diligently to create safe spaces for local youth leaders while also strengthening the foundation for ongoing youth leadership and advocacy," said Jasmine Boatwright, of Youth MOVE National. "We are extremely proud of their contribution to the national youth movement."

Teenagers are increasingly at risk for serious mental health issues. According to the World Health Organization, depression, anxiety and behavioral disorders are among the leading causes of illness and disability in adolescents.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the number of adolescents reporting poor mental health is increasing.

Add isolation imposed by the COVID pandemic into the mix, and you have a recipe for a mental health epidemic.

"Youth engagement feels very hard right now," said Jordan Stonecypher, a program director at the National Alliance on Mental Illness. It is Youth MOVE's umbrella organization in Sarasota.

Teen Asian girl looking into the camera
Jim DeLa
Community News Collaborative
Xinyi Liu is a 17-year-old who started her own support group for immigrant teens before joining Youth MOVE.

"We kind of got stunted. Everyone was 'stay at home' and they just kept staying home," she said. "What I hear from youth is the social anxiety -- 'I don't know if I can socialize anymore. How do I connect with people again?' "

Boucher sees the same issues. "Most of the kids I work with have social anxiety in some way. Depression is pretty common," she said. "They'll tell me, 'I've having a hard time getting out of bed; I've been really anxious to go to school.' "

Boucher says the group focuses on listening and offering support. " 'What can we do to make the days a little bit better for you? How can we get you more excited for school?' Yeah, stuff like that, she said. “Little steps. It's a lot of talking it out."

For 17-year-old Xinyi Liu, the organization was exactly what she was looking for.

"I really saw how they were able to advocate for youth mental health and well-being," said Liu, who was recently named Youth MOVE's volunteer of the year.

Liu's family moved to the United States from China when she was 12.

"When I first came here, it was ... kind of, like, a cultural explosion for me because I wasn't adapting to the community and I wasn't sure how to interact with my community," she said.

In 2022, she started an online chat support group for teen immigrants. When she wanted to find experts to participate, she was connected with Youth MOVE, which invited her to volunteer and eventually run for a seat on its board. "After doing these volunteering things ... I kind of became more involved with the community, and also I just got to know myself a little better."

"And that's why I decided to become involved," she said. "I thought that, like, what they're doing is really amazing."

Youth MOVE - which stands for Motivating Others Through Voices of Experience - and the National Alliance on Mental Illness have several events coming up, including the second meeting of a initiative called Elevating Youth Voice.

That program aims to "provide an opportunity for youth to create the change they wish to see in their community, while encouraging community stakeholders to work side-by-side with them throughout the process."

"They just started it and it's going really well," Boucher said. "We are trying to get multiple nonprofits in the Sarasota-Manatee area to join us monthly so that we get more information on what is needed."

Other events coming up include:

  • A Vision Board workshop 5 to 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the SEE Space, 615 S Orange Ave., Sarasota.
  • A youth meet-up and pageant advice, 6 to 7:30 p.m. March 28 at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 240B S. Tuttle Ave., Sarasota.
  • Elevating Youth Voice, an online workgroup, 5 to 6 p.m. March 28, via Zoom.

To learn more about Youth MOVE and its programs, visit website.

Jim DeLa is a reporter for the Community News Collaborative. Reach him at