U.S Senator Bernie Sanders held a roundtable with high school students for his annual State of the Union essay contest, which allows students to voice their opinions on topics that matter most to them.

On Saturday, high school students were sitting in the seats of lawmakers at the Vermont Statehouse.

“It is enormously gratifying to see such bright young kids across the state talk about the most important issues facing Vermont and the nation,” says Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (I). You become deeply moved by the intelligence and decency of these kids.”

This year, close to 400 essays were submitted from 31 different schools. Vermont educators served as judges and selected 12 finalists and three winners. Topics discussed included mental health, misinformation, and political polarization.

“I wrote about how polarization could lead to congressional gridlock, lack of trust, an increase in violence, and a lessened sense of community,” says J Lahue, a freshman at Burr and Burton Academy.

And for students, the issues were personal.

“My grandpa, Robert, was drafted for the Korean war and was forced to serve this country against his will,” says Jacob Antonovich, a senior at Bellows Free Academy. “And at the current moment, he’s reaching the end of life. Since he served, he’s entitled to hospice. Private hospice could be there in 24 hours, but they can’t afford that at 88, 90. We tried, but they never showed up until after a month. It is appalling.”

“The deeper thing is suicide,” says Andrew Barrett, a sophomore at Oxbow High School. “Recently, a close friend of mine’s dad died by suicide. There’s no funding for getting treatment. It’s really expensive, like the healthcare part.”

Much of the mental health discussions came from the recent shooting threats made to some Vermont schools.

“I think it’s something that shouldn’t have to be a daily worry for students, but I know a lot of people that it’s on the minds of a lot, like am I safe at school,” says Leah Kuhnert, a Junior at Woodstock Union High School.

Leah Kuhnert became aware of the event through her U.S Government class. Her essay focused on climate change.

“We can take small steps toward being progressive about climate change,” Leah says. “And on a lawmaking level, it’s important that we’re discussing it more.”

High school students cherished the opportunity to be heard from the longtime U.S Senator.

“It’s an amazing opportunity to have a direct connection with someone who could make large-scale changes for high school students,” Leah says. “And it’s something that I think should be done more often.”

And so did their parents.

“So many of the topics touched so much of them personally, so it took a lot of courage for them to get up to speak,” says Bill and Amanda Kunert, Leah’s parents.

The essays will be saved in the Congressional Record, the official archive of the U.S Congress.