The Gateway Region YMCA is proud to continue the important work Starting the Conversation has begun.

Our mission is to help parents and caregivers be more prepared and proactive in their approach to kids' mental health and fitness, and we know that having open and effective conversations advances that goal.

Volunteer with Us

Learn about our events:

Youth Mental Health First Aid teaches you how to identify, understand, and respond to signs of mental health and substance use challenges among children and adolescents ages 6-18. Join us at one of our upcoming sessions. Open to everyone ages 18+.

March 27 • 9 AM - 3 PM • Kirkwood Family YMCA • Virtual

April 19 • 9 AM - 3 PM • Kirkwood Family YMCA • Virtual

Email Jeff Wilson at if you have any questions

One out of every five people in the U.S. has a mental health diagnosis. While needing help with mental health is common, it currently takes an average of 10 years for people to get the help they need. Yet treatment is most helpful when diagnosis happens early.

Join us to:

  • Hear from parents about their experiences supporting their kids' mental fitness
  • Connect with free and low-cost mental health service providers
  • Get questions answered by healthcare professionals

Register for the following dates below.

  • Thursday, February 22, 2024 - Washington University/Danforth University-Goldberg Lounge on 2nd Floor (One Brookings Dr. St. Louis, MO 63130)

Resource Fair starts at 6 pm. Panel discussion from 6:30-7:30 pm.

Register Now!


We believe that it is never too early to focus on kids' mental health and fitness.

The research shows that about half of all cases of chronic mental illness begin by age 14, and about three fourths begin by age 24.

We are helping parents and caregivers learn how to engage in effective conversations with their kids, and how to identify behaviors that should be cause for concern and action. We are also providing them opportunities to hear from mental health professionals who share their expertise on how to handle various situations and how to optimize kids' mental health.


We all want our kids to have optimal mental health, at every age and under all circumstances. For example, if a child develops a mental illness, we want that illness to be managed so that the child can lead an active, healthy, and fulfilling life; if a child suffers a trauma, we want the long-term adverse impact of that trauma to be minimized; and if a child is engaging in destructive behavior, we want that child to find a way to stop. We know, however, that there are no easy paths, or clear cut answers, leading to these types of outcomes. Our presentations provide helpful information so that parents and other caregivers can make these types of outcomes more likely. When they do that, they are raising mentally fit kids.

By sharing our experiences and the lessons we have learned, we hope to start a chain reaction of conversations to help parents and other caregivers be more prepared and proactive in their approach to the mental health and mental fitness of our youth.

Starting the Conversation began as a grassroots initiative launched by a small group of individuals who are parents, caregivers, and family members of children and adults who are living with, or have experienced, a mental illness, mental health condition, or trauma. In 2015, we began our own conversation about how we could bring awareness and focus to mental health and fitness at the earliest stages of children's lives, even before any symptoms might appear. In 2016, we held our first event. Since then, interest in, and acclaim for, our program has continued to grow. In 2019, we became a Missouri nonprofit with section 501(c)(3) status. In 2020, Starting the Conversation began working with the Gateway Region YMCA. In 2021, Starting the Conversation became a program of the Y to increase its reach to the MO/IL bi-state region.

Our work differs from that of other mental health organizations in that we focus on the front end of raising kids. With one out of five children ages 13 to 18 living with a mental health condition, all parents must recognize that their children may at some point be included in this population. Undoubtedly, every child will at least have a sibling, a friend, or a classmate in this population. And yet, many children do not feel comfortable talking about mental health issues, or they don't know how to do so. This is one of the reasons why there is often a delay of many years between the onset of symptoms and intervention.

Through our events--which are free, informative, and time efficient--we are showing that mental health issues can arise in children of any age, background, or circumstances, and that a vital tool for addressing these issues is conversation. We are helping parents and other caregivers learn how to converse with their kids openly and effectively about changing emotions and challenging circumstances. We are providing them with opportunities to learn from highly knowledgeable mental health professionals. We are connecting them with providers of free and low-cost mental health services. We are listening when others share their own experiences, and we are combatting stigmas in our society.

By sharing our experiences with openness and vulnerability, and without judgment, we let others know that they are not alone, and we help them find safety and liberation in talking about their own situations. By normalizing these types of conversations within our families and our communities, we combat social stigmas and help foster a new generation of youth who are both supported and supportive regarding mental health issues. By sharing the lessons we have learned, bringing in voices of expertise, and connecting families with resources, we provide vital information and help others raise mentally fit kids.


Our panels always include several parent panelists, each sharing a real life story of raising a child impacted by a mental illness, challenge, condition, or trauma. Their stories are relatable, informative, and at the heart of what we do. You will be amazed by all the positive effects of these open conversations about real life experiences. Indeed, our parent panelists often find that opening up and sharing is liberating and healing for both themselves and their children.

Mental Health Professionals

Our panels always include a child psychiatrist or other appropriate mental health professional. These mental health professionals always have specific experience dealing with children and adolescents. They add an essential voice of professional wisdom and clinical expertise. For example, they can illuminate why the processes of diagnosis and treatment can sometimes be long and difficult, explain how parents and professionals can work together effectively, and provide helpful information about navigating medical resources.

Other Organizations

Starting the Conversation also connects people to providers of free and low-cost mental health services in the St. Louis area. At our events, we bring in representatives of these organizations so that people can connect with them in person and ask them questions.  We know that parents often do not know where to turn, or find it difficult to schedule a timely appointment, when suddenly faced with a child's pressing mental health issue. These organizations are there to help.

To volunteer as panelists, click here or contact Earlisha Jefferson at to learn more.