The stories Lizzie Jensen has heard from depressed and suicidal North Dakota students — often in response to or exacerbated by bullying — have stuck with her.
They are engraved in her mind and in the small book that the newly crowned Miss North Dakota carries bearing the names of the students who have shared their struggles with her.
Since being named Miss North Dakota, Jensen, 23, of Fargo, has made it her mission to spread awareness of bullying and mental health. She's traveled across the state in recent weeks, with stops this week at Bismarck elementary schools. So far, she's reached nearly 10,000 students and plans to hear from more.
“My goal is to get to as many student as possible, but especially the high school students, because I talk about my eating disorder, I talk about me being bullied, and I also talk about my depression, my anxiety and my suicidal ideations,” she said. “I let them know it’s OK to have those struggles."
On Wednesday, she spoke to more than 600 children sitting cross-legged on the gymnasium floor at Sunrise Elementary School in Bismarck. The goal is to talk with them when they're young, she said.
Jensen told the group how she was bullied for 10 years starting in second grade. She asked the young children to stand up if they've been affected by bullying, and nearly all the students rose.
"So, this is why it's important for us to talk about it, because every single one of you has been affected by this in one way or another," she said.
Jensen has also made a handful of stops at high schools, where some students have stayed behind after her presentation to share their experiences.
She remembers a senior at a small high school, who disclosed to her that he had attempted suicide several times. While talking with him, she said she could see the cuts going up from his wrist to his shoulder.
There was also a young high school girl who told Jensen she was depressed and suicidal. The girl thanked Jensen for showing that it was OK to open up, because she hadn't shared her experiences with anyone.
"When I told the principal afterwards, he had no idea," Jensen said. "These students are just telling me everything, and I wish these students would tell more about their struggles to people who can actually do something."
Using her platform, #IAmMore, which focuses on anti-bullying and self-worth, Jensen, is also advocating for legislative change.
While a local title holder, Miss West Fargo, Jensen said she researched district policies on bullying in the state, and she found that they varied.
"Students are treated differently when it comes to bullying in the state of North Dakota," she said, adding that she is planning to attend a conference in Bismarck for school officials in order to get their input on policies.
Jensen said she'd like to see a universal bullying policy throughout the state. She would also like to see more help for not just students who are bullied, but bullies themselves.
Jensen said she's planning to use her crown to help students who are struggling by connecting them to mental health resources and steps students who are bullied can take.
“As Miss North Dakota, if I can leave a permanent impact that is going to positively impact these students, that would be my ultimate goal," she said.