How to get teens to talk about tough topics? Start a student podcast.

After the student podcast club at Hancock High School proposed tackling mental health for its first episode, members fanned out to gather research then excitedly shared what they found. But when faculty adviser Ray Salazar asked how the information related to their own experiences, conversation stopped.

“I wasn’t used to speaking about mental health with my friends, so coming to the club and talking about it then was not going to be possible for me,” said junior Andres Cisneros, 16. “I said nothing.”

That uncomfortable silence illustrated one of the points and purposes of the podcast: People, especially teens, have difficulty talking about their personal struggles with mental health, even though those challenges are widespread. About one in five U.S. adults experiences mental illness in a given year, but communities of color, especially Latino and black people, use mental-health services at only a fraction the rate of white Americans.

The Hancock podcast club set out to teach members technical skills, and along the way address issues important to teens. But first, the students had to face the precise challenge that they sought to cover.

Educators and community members have called on Chicago Public Schools to hire more social workers, counselors, and mental health professionals. But the Hancock students’ podcasting experience highlights other barriers to access, starting with some teenagers’ reticence to seek help.

“At our school in particular, we do have counselors and people really willing to help, yet I didn’t know we could just go to them and talk about problems until a couple months ago, and that should be more promoted,” said sophomore Cortez Stewart, 16.

“But getting students to even go talk to them is hard,” he continued. “I have friends who I’ve told they should go talk to the counselor for problems really affecting them, and they say, ‘I’ll deal with it like a man.’”

Stewart said putting the podcast together was therapeutic. It was also educational.

Salazar, an English teacher and writer whose work has appeared on National Public Radio and Chicago Public Radio, characterized podcasting as a potent learning tool that helped the teens explore the academic side of mental health and connect the research to the world around them, while learning technical skills that could come in handy down the line. The club includes several aspiring journalists.

“It reaffirmed my idea that what we do in schools today has to connect with real world experiences somehow,” said Salazar, who also teaches journalism at Hancock. “That’s what’s going to help transform education in the 21st century.”

“There’s people out there who understand you.”

The Hancock Podcast Club, which has nine members, meets weekly after school at Mind + Hand, a youth center on the Southwest Side. Salazar helped convene the club in November at students’ request.

It kicked off with a brainstorming session. The teens knew they wanted the podcast, titled “Chi Teens Talk,” to discuss topics teens often don’t, so they landed on this question: “Do teens take mental health seriously?”

But answering it wasn’t as easy as flipping on a microphone and talking.

Salazar directed them to gather research and statistics on mental health at websites like that of the National Association for Mental Illness. They mapped out segments, conducted interviews and, after a crash course in recording and sound editing, began to stitch the episode together.

On it, Hancock’s dean talks about mental health resources at the school. The school counselor discusses mindfulness meditation. Stewart reads a poem about mental health. Another student talks about feeling empowered by “a little black dress.”

But the highlight of the episode is a roundtable discussion among the students —  the one they tried to record but had to take a second crack at because they were too shy to share.

“What I noticed was that a lot of us had similar stories within our lives, friends going through mental health issues,” said Cisneros, a 16-year-old junior whose family hails from Mexico. “But students are often not open to talking about it, especially because talking about your feelings has a negative perception within some of our cultures.”

Several of the teens said that their immigrant parents struggled to discuss mental health with them because they didn’t discuss it themselves as youth in their home countries, and were focused more on ensuring their physical and financial health.

Some spoke about the shift from past generations that might have frowned upon somebody seeing a psychiatrist, to the paradigm of praising people’s strength for coming forward. Others spoke about social media triggering anxiety and the challenges of crafting a self image and building self esteem in the Instagram age.

“What they revealed is that there still needs to be a lot of work on just making young people comfortable talking about mental health,” Salazar said. “Once that starts happening, I think families and young people will be more open to accessing mental health even though we have to be honest that there’s not enough resources available to people, especially on the South and West Sides of the city.”

The podcast is a way to target not only the stigma of mental illness, but also the need for culturally inviting ways to engage youth around the topic, and the importance of educating students about what resources are available.

Nicholas Claudio, 16, a junior, said the issue of mental health has been running through his mind the past two years amid the rash of mass shootings, including in schools, by adults and youth who struggled with mental illness.

“It’s really affecting our society as a whole, politically and when it comes down to the families,” he said.

Enduring software crashes, accidentally deleted and misplaced files, and classmates dropping out, the club members said they’ve learned technical skills and knowledge of mental health and its impact on their community and their own lives.

The outcome was a 35-minute episode available now on Soundcloud. Future episodes will focus the students’ perspectives on topics like gun violence, relationships and the impact divorce has on families.

Sophomore Rachel Arroyo, 16, hopes that the club’s comfort talking about tough topics and possible solutions will help other youth do the same.

“We want other people to hear it, and we want to encourage them to understand that not everything has to be kept to themselves,” she said. “There’s people out there who understand you.”

You can listen to the Chi Teens podcast, here.