Last month, over 900 educators and school counselors convened at William Jessup University in Rocklin to attend the Second Annual Student Mental Health Conference. The event was organized by Wellness Together, a non-profit devoted to student counseling services with offices in Rocklin, Sacramento and Laguna Niguel, and the California Department of Education.

Christina Ivazes is the Director of the Coalition for Placer Youth – a grassroots coalition devoted to community-based youth substance use prevention strategies. At this event she delivered a training on how to create positive social norms for youth in a state where cannabis is legalized for recreational adult use. Below is a summary of the science findings and the insights for parents that I gleaned from her presentation.

(Full disclosure: I serve as the chair for the Coalition for Placer Youth, and have been a founding member since 2008).


Executive summary

Christina Ivazes is the Director of the Coalition for Placer Youth, Rocklin

Instilling healthy norms for your teen’s social experiences, on and off-line, requires a mindset that recognizes your child is in control of him or herself. So focus on the things you hope they will do, rather than fearfully trying to be in control of their choices. Below are some insights offered to both educators and parents by prevention strategist and health educator, Christina Ivazes, Director of the Coalition for Placer Youth, Rocklin:

  • Communication with your compassion. You are influencing them because you care about them and you value their life. Remember to listen without feeling the need to always respond.
  • Observe the point of view of your teen. Consider how your words will hit their heart. Will your choice of words come across as judgy and unforgiving? Or will they be hopeful and encouraging that you believe in them.
  • Envision yourself with your teen as their advocate, not their judge. Keep in mind that your teen will not agree with you if they feel you are trying to control them and are condemning their inherent capacity for self-determination and independence. They may not agree with you anyway, but allowing them to communicate without feeling judged is the ultimate goal to keep them open to expressing their feelings.
  • Know your local data so you can confidently communicate what is really going on to help your teen know that most of their high school peers are making good choices; so they don’t feel like total outsiders.
  • Guide your teen to become a discerning, critical consumer of media and how to find credible sources of information and research.


One of the greatest challenges for families today is the overwhelming influence of social media on hearts and minds. Mobile technology in the hands of youth and families has inspired a power crisis for parents and youth in that the apps are designed to engage the brain much like an intoxicating drug, tapping the same reward centers of the brain. This makes it very difficult to regulate the use and mitigating the impact of social media on hearts and minds, young and old alike.

See: How the brains of tech-savvy youth are being hacked, and what to do about it

Therefore, in their cyber-social realms, peer communities and popular culture can easily become a single point of reference for life, making it difficult to recognize a lie or seductive advertising (in the form of a message, thought or an image) when youth encounter it.

At the Second Annual Student Mental Health Conference for educators last February 28 and March 1, Christina Ivazes, MPH, Director of the Coalition for Placer Youth, delivered a training on how to create positive social norms in response to the legalization of cannabis in California (Prop. 64).


See: Cannabis 101 for Parents: Two truths about today’s pot

The keynote presentations at this conference feature and address this simple fact of modern life: since the advent of the mobile phone in 2011, the mental health of youth has been adversely impacted by cyber-stressed feelings of isolation. Now more than ever, perception is reality. And our children’s perceptions are so easily influenced by things that are not true and really don’t matter, but are given high importance by the amount of coverage they receive.

According to Ivazes, the increased stressed rates, mental illness, suicidality and risk of suicide among youth is real and supported by data, and she suggests some ways to offer thought leadership for students. Youth can reduce the risks of mental health disorders by preventing the effects of sustained stress and by avoiding the substantiated and increased risk of mental illness from youth cannabis use, along with the negative impacts of other substance use. There are many ways parents can support healthy coping skills to reduce teen stress at school and in the home.

First she offers some statistics about the mental health crisis of students include:

  • After 2009, non-fatal, self-inflicted injury among females aged 10-14 years increased 18.8 percent per year from 109 percent in 2009 to 317.7 percent in 2015. (JAMA 2017 :113(19))
  • 9 out of 10 people with substance abuse problems started using by age 18.
  • 1 in 4 are addicted who started using before age 18, as compared to 1 in 25 for those who started at age 21 or older (U.S., The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA+ at Columbia University)).
  • The risk of psychosis, including bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia are significantly increased by youth cannabis use.

Below are some insights about from the science of cannabis use among students and the impact on young brains and the potential for addiction and other mental health issues.

  • Young brains CB1 receptors are broadly distributed throughout the brain, but selectively activated during adolescence for healthy brain structure development.
  • The psychoactive component of cannabis is THC. Studies indicate that the CB1 function is disrupted when flooded by cannabinoid exposure to THC.
  • This disruption impacts development of the regions of the brain that control emotion, thought, memory and social interaction. And these changes can persist well into adulthood and increase the risk for psychiatric illness as well as other drug addictions.

With this understanding about the risk of harm for students using cannabis, she encourages parents and educators to consider the very specific ways we can influence more critical thinking among the students, so the students will be less likely to agree with the popular thoughts and images in their social media feeds. Below are some insights to consider in your conversations with your teen.

Question the source and the source’s motivation. Encourage your teen to research using credible sources.

Focus your conversations on the target behavior, not the behavior you want to avoid. If your child is anxious about school, guiding them towards options or decisions to be more comfortable may be a productive focus. If your child has insomnia, perhaps you can discover the adjustments that can help them sleep better. Use language focusing on what you want, what their deeper needs are. Rather than “Don’t forget” say “Remember…”; instead of “Don’t…” say, “Do this….”; as the This is important because the negative words imply judgment and the brain does not have an image for ‘Don’t….” So when you say “Don’t run!” often youth will keep running because the brain focuses on the verb, not the instruction before it.

A positive focus is as important as being accurate about the terms you are using. Take care to use the term “mental health” and “wellness” as the goal, whether it be through lifestyle adjustments or treatment or both. Use terms stating “mental illness” or “mental health disorders” or other accurate terms when referring to these. Even professionals incorrectly use the term “mental health” when they really mean “mental health disorders.”

Perceptions matter. With any risky situation, the less perceived harm in the culture, the greater the chances of usage going up. And it is true that when we indicate that some substances are less risky than others, then there will be a perceived “no risk” associated with those substances. For example, which of the following substances/activities do you worry about your child using?

  • Cigarettes
  • Vaping
  • Alcohol
  • Having sex
  • Cheating on a test
  • Using marijuana/cannabis

All of these activities above involve risk of harm.

Impact of risky norms in the social network. Below are a list of some of the norms of youth peer communities that can convince youth to participate:

  • Youth who perceive that the majority of their peers drink are more likely to drink themselves.
  • Parents who believe that most youth drink may be less likely to take protective actions with their own child.
  • School leaders who believe that most children drink may consider underage drinking a “rite of passage” and be unwilling to adopt appropriate policies.
  • Law enforcement leaders who believe the community condones underage drinking may be less likely to strongly enforce underage drinking laws.

By the same token, Ivazes explains that fear doesn’t discourage youth from believing and acting on risky norms portrayed in their cyber-social realms. Below are some of the ways that fear appeals (zero tolerance with an aim to punish those who are caught) can backfire, and have unintended adverse effects:

  • Label and stigmatize (which encourages youth to keep secrets, because they perceive that the crime is to get caught.)
  • Expand social gaps (the judgment causes people to create divisions between those that are perceived as clean, and those that are not)
  • Loss of engagement (people tune out to fear-mongering as a type of manipulation)
  • Lack of trust and communication with parents and other caring adults
  • Label and stigmatize (which encourages youth to keep secrets, because they perceive that the crime is to get caught.)
  • Expand social gaps (the judgment causes people to create divisions between those that are perceived as clean, and those that are not)
  • Loss of engagement (people tune out to fear-mongering as a type of manipulation)

The real question in how to respond to our teens is: “What are the deeper needs of my child that are not being met and how can I help guide them towards getting them met to increase their wellness?”

Visit Raising Placer for research, talking tips and other helpful information for you and your teen.

To learn more about creating a family culture of wellness, go to: Fresh Start Family Culture


About:  We are a non-profit education center founded in Roseville, CA to strengthen the parent-child bond in a hyper-connected world. Our mission is to restore families with the mustard seed of faith that declares liberty already belongs to the soul because one God, the Creator of all humanity, grants every human being intelligence and free will to choose what to believe, and that is power that can never be taken, but is easily surrendered to the bully, the drug or the device. To that end, ten percent of all proceeds are donated to prison ministries. Your donations are greatly appreciated. (Donations are payable to Banana Moments Foundation).

Joanna Jullien, Founder & CEO of Core Connectivity
Photo by: Victoria Hatch

Joanna Jullien is an author, educator and consultant on strengthening the parent-child relationship in a cyber-powered world. She is a former technology executive trained in behavioral science at U.C. Berkeley, a mother of two grown sons, and an author of books for practical guidance on parenting, growing up and family life in the network culture. As a family and technology culture advisor, Joanna has appeared on 103.9FM The Fish, 710AM Keeping Faith in America, 1380AM The Answer, and