Seventeen-year-old high school senior, Rohan Tirumala, knows firsthand how cutthroat things can be for young people in the Cupertino, CA area. As he applies for colleges, he reflects on how competition thrives in the fight for the best grades, the most impressive extracurriculars, and most prestigious schools.
Four years ago, Rohan made it his mission to help students de-stress and to destigmatize mental health issues when he started a nonprofit called Stress Free Teens. In addition to leading the conversation, he and his team have initiated a music mentor program to provide free music lessons, raised money for COVID relief, and formed partnerships to offer training programs like the free social media graphic design workshop set for next year. A subject matter expert from the Santa Clara County Behavioral Health Services will kick off the multi-day event.
What inspires you to volunteer?
The Bay Area has always been a very competitive environment for kids and teenagers. A lot of people knew that it wasn’t healthy, but no one really addressed it. When I entered high school, I wanted to bring awareness to these issues.
So, I started Stress-Free Teens. I work with a team to advocate for these mental health struggles that a lot of young adults face. For me, that’s always been a really big motivation for volunteering, especially when it’s an issue that I struggle with as well. It makes it a lot more personal.
Tell me about Stress Free Teens and your role in it.
I worked throughout the beginning of freshman year to get it established as a 501C3. Going into that second semester of freshman year the pandemic started. Everything shifted, and we had to figure out how to do everything virtually.
My role is to bring the officer team together to brainstorm ideas and work with everybody to execute them. We’ve done that in a bunch of different ways. We’ve created a blog team. We’ve hosted podcasts and talked to experts across industries about mental health in their respective fields. We create regular Instagram posts talking about topics from mental health to different therapeutic activities like music.
I’ve also invested significant personal time in youth advisory groups, being trained on topics such as suicide prevention, social belonging, and anti-racist principles. Working with the California Coalition for Youth & Santa Clara County Wellness group has given me insight into what it takes to run a sustainable, ethical organization.
Do you put on events?
Many. One of our first was a two- to three-week science camp, through which we were able to raise $3,000-$4,000 to donate to West Valley Community Services. They provided COVID relief to low-income families.
We had another virtual event later that same year that was more of a fun event for people to relax after their finals. We’ve had art and music events, and we’ve partnered with our local Cupertino City Board to work at theirs. Our impact has even become international, with school partners in India using our training programs to educate 30+ teens on self-care and mental health.
Why is de-stressing so important, particularly for teens?
Mental health is just starting to garner more awareness, especially since the pandemic started, which is exciting to see. It contributes to daily life a lot more than people realize, because–especially in students–issues like burnout, anxiety, depression, and even a general lack of motivation can be tiring and make it really hard to function in day-to-day activities.
It’s really important to talk about these issues. The earlier you talk about it, the better the chance you have of being able to successfully address it rather than ignoring it or calling it what it’s not, laziness. It’s really important to change that perspective and make sure people know it’s a real issue that needs to be addressed.
What are some easy things people can do to relieve stress?
What has helped me are things like yoga and listening to music. Whether it’s playing it or listening to it, music has always been my outlet for de-stressing. And talking to people. If you find just one person that you are able to talk to about your feelings–it doesn’t even need to be a professional–it’s a really good way to take some pressure off.
A big key is just finding the right outlet, even if it’s just journaling or reading a book. If you’re starting to feel that pressure, it’s time to make a change, even if it’s just taking just a break from whatever it is that’s causing that stress.
What’s been the most rewarding part of your work?
It sounds like a cliché, but I think it’s really underrated how good giving back can make you feel. This is a really personal issue, and I’ve seen myself and so many people struggle with it. Even seeing comments or people DMing us about things in our Instagram posts makes me feel good. Nowadays there are many different students and organizations working together to address these issues, and that’s exciting to see.
What have you learned through your experiences as a volunteer?
Working with a team like mine, it’s cool to see how all of these people have so many different perspectives and everything comes together to move us towards one common goal. We’re all part of a bigger movement.
Why do you think it’s important to be involved in your community?
I’ve been really fortunate in the sense that I haven’t had to worry about things like financial issues. It’s feels good to be doing something with the chances that you’ve been given. It’s a win-win situation. You’re going to feel a good, and the cause that you’re working towards will be better off.
What do you want people to learn from your story?
You don’t have to create something world-changing to do something good. There are many organizations out there that are doing amazing things and who will always be looking for volunteers and for people to contribute. You don’t need to be a pioneer in the field. You can just be someone that helps the greater good.
Do you want to make a difference in your community like Rohan? Find local volunteer opportunities.