For Berthoud High School senior Kaitlyn Tollefson, mental wellness isn’t just something she hears adults talk about – it’s the issue she has planned all her career goals around.
The Thompson School District Boettcher finalist has been aware of the importance of mental health since kindergarten when she was diagnosed with ADHD after struggling with a difficult teacher. In middle school, learning of a friend’s suicidal thoughts motivated Kaitlyn to start figuring out what she could do to help.
Now in high school, Kaitlyn has put together an extensive resume consisting of multiple seats on various wellness committees and boards and many hours spent testifying before the Colorado State Legislature about the importance of focusing on mental health, especially for school-aged youth.
“Making the world a better place has always been something I’ve cared about,” Kaitlyn says. “I want to leave change in the world. I don’t want to be sitting in my eighties or nineties thinking, I wish I would have impacted more people.”
Kaitlyn Tollefson has testified before many committees, including the one that led to the bill’s passing, which mandates that health insurance companies in Colorado cover one mental health visit per year separate from physical exams. But Kaitlyn says there is still a lot of work to be done in addition to changing the laws.
“We can target the political aspects all we want, but if mental health isn’t destigmatized and talked about in day-to-day life, there’s not going to be much progress,” she says.
Kaitlyn’s parents, both doctors, supported her in standing up for what she believed in from a young age. Some of her earliest activism involved creating Science Fair projects that helped people with anxiety and difficulty focusing. She did projects that sought to find healthy ways to manage stress and pain and created something she called Calm Kits – an idea she came up with after researching ways to destigmatize mental health issues. The purpose of the kits is to help others learn how to make their own kits and use them to safely manage stress. Kaitlyn has received several grants to make and distribute the kits in various places, including many schools.
By age 15, Kaitlyn began testifying before the Colorado Legislature and working toward convincing adults that it’s critical to take mental health concerns seriously.
“In a perfect world, no one will struggle with mental health issues because of lack of access or education,” Kaitlyn Tollefson says. “Mental health is ever-changing. We can always pull us forward and make the world better.”
Kaitlyn is also the president of BHS’ chapter of Sources of Strength, which aims to provide support for students to rely on when they need it, and emphasizes how important it is for everyone to have a net to catch them when they are in crisis – one of the reasons she’s decided to make a career out of working toward improving mental health care.
“We are getting there. We have to take little steps since there are so many facets,” she explains. “We’re not in a place that is great, and maybe not even good, but we are going forward. Schools are starting to see that.”
Kaitlin will be attending the University of Colorado at Boulder this fall. She aspires to study psychiatry and public health before going into a career in politics so she can create change in the culture of how mental health is perceived.
“Suicide is the number one cause of death for our age range,” Kaitlyn says of her concern for her generation’s mental wellness. “Colorado as a state is last in a lot of ways caring for mental health, but those statistics are not set in stone. They’re something we can change, and I’m really passionate about staying in Colorado to make changes.”