Local teen runs peer support group for mental health

Amber Leyba-Castle, right, works with Christina Cernansky, the executive director of the nonprofit National Alliance on Mental Illness-Wood River Valley, to support people with mental illness.

“Find what supports you.”

Amber Leyba-Castle, Creator of Bluebirds Teen Support Group & Club


The idea started over shrimp and grits. Amber Leyba-Castle and Christina Cernansky were cooking dinner together when Leyba-Castle thought of a support and advocacy group for her fellow classmates. The Bluebird Teen Support Group & Club soon evolved from an idea to an action.

“A program designed for pro-active and compassionate students, alongside of their peers and school staff, to give and receive support for mental health issues, as well as to advocate for the de-stigmatization of mental health,” an informational flyer about the group explains.

That sounds like a lot, but essentially it’s a support and advocacy group in which teens can talk among their peers about difficult topics such as depression, anxiety and suicide, and educate their peers on suicide prevention and how to spot the warning signs. The group provides coping skills and provides a safe space where students can offer each other encouragement, advice and advocacy, in a private environment.

Leyba-Castle, 18, sat on a couch in the office of the National Alliance on Mental Illness-Wood River Valley at the Blaine County Community Center last week as she discussed with the Idaho Mountain Express her involvement with NAMI. She said she took up the advocacy of mental-health awareness after being personally affected by it through her own adversities. She chose her “personal project”—a project that each high school student must complete—to be a silent-auction event that would raise money for NAMI. As a sophomore in high school, she raised $500, and when she went to Cernansky—the executive director of the local NAMI chapter—to present the check, Cernansky offered her an internship.

Leyba-Castle wanted to create something for her peers, a venue where they could talk about all of the anxieties and stresses of being in middle school and high school, and how to get through it. The Bluebirds program was launched in spring 2017 as two parts: a support group that meets once a week during the school day in a confidential meeting space facilitated by a licensed health professional—usually the school counselor—and a club that meets once a week after school that “provides a venue and opportunity for students to access healthy activities, to have open conversations, and to practice mental health and well-being skills in their daily lives,” the informational flyer states.

“High school is only four years—such a small part of everyone’s life,” Leyba-Castle said.

She is now a senior at Wood River High School, getting ready to go to Idaho State University to pursue a degree in psychology with the hope of having her own practice someday.

For now, she works with Cernansky on a daily basis, to create a curriculum that can open the door for other schools to start a Bluebird program of their own, something that NAMI has never had before.

The term Bluebirds came from a famous Disney song titled “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.” The song resonated with Leyba-Castle and Cernansky as one that says you’ll be OK, even through adversities.

Leyba-Castle said most of the struggles she sees in her peers are anxieties from school—standardized testing and challenging classes—and from social anxieties of just being in high school, social status, economic status, etc.

Cernansky called that “uncharted territory”—hence the curriculum being created from scratch by Leyba-Castle with her help.

The program has been successful in Leyba-Castle’s eyes. She said there’s a sense of comradery within the group, and that through presentations to classes at the high school, more students are becoming aware of the group and ways they can get involved, or just become more aware of mental-health issues and break the stigmas about them.

“Find what supports you,” Leyba-Castle said she tells anyone experiencing anxiety or depression. “Find something that lets you escape those stresses.”

The program explores some of those outlets through group activities that are free to the participants. One example is when the group decorated holiday cookies prior to winter break. While decorating, they discussed coping skills that could help them get through the holidays, which can often be stressful.

Six months ago, the program received a $5,000 state grant from the South Central Behavioral Health Board, which Leyba-Castle plans to use to create a “tool kit” including materials, ideas, best practices and curriculum to give to other schools that want to start a program of their own.

Cernansky said there has been immense support from the community, including partnerships, cooperation from school administrators and collaborations with nonprofit groups in the valley.

Leyba-Castle said, “We’re really fortunate to live here and have these resources.”

That being said, the awareness and advocacy must continue. In March, NAMI will host its annual “Journey to Wellness” art show. This year, the event will feature artwork from two art classes at Wood River High School, and funds generated will go toward mental-health resources in the community. The theme of the art centers around the Bluebirds theme, which suggests that “sometimes when you’re feeling down and blue, remember you will fly,” the event’s flyer states.

The “Journey to Wellness” art show will take place Monday, March 11, from 5:30-7:30 p.m. at the Ketchum Innovation Center. For more information on the Bluebirds, visit namiwrv.org/bluebirds.