Students have ideas for addressing mental health challenges. They want to be heard

Stress, alienation, addiction, lack of belonging, pressure of high expectations.

These are among the issues that a group of high school student leaders say they are ready to tackle head-on. But they don’t just name the problems; they also come up with solutions to offer to their peers and managers.

The pandemic has severely affected young people’s mental health, and school and district administrators often cite student well-being as a top concern as they struggle for normality. But too often, students aren’t asked for their ideas on how to tackle challenges. And they have lots of ideas: mental health days for students and faculty, student-led professional development for teachers, hiring more women as school leaders, sessions on coping skills, promoting mindfulness and self-care, and providing quiet rooms on campus and private spaces for students.

A mental health summit convened by the National Association of Secondary School Principals earlier this month aims to change the dynamic that either excludes students entirely or only superficially includes them in problem solving. The organization brought together nearly 50 students at the summit in Arlington, Va., along with adult counselors from their schools to brainstorm solutions.

“Stressed” and “overworked”

At the summit, the team of El O’Neill and Nicole Sanchez from Cardinal Spellman High School, a Roman Catholic school in Brockton, Mass., identified stress as the major issue they would like to focus on.

“It was easy to see that in all areas our school is very stressed and we are overworked,” said O’Neill, a junior. “That’s how we see it and feel it.”

The group and their two adult advisors tossed around a few ideas: a quiet room for students to decompress; mental health days for students and staff; additional therapists; more time and activities outside of class.

They opted for mental health days, in part because it was universal and easier to implement of all the options they had considered. Hiring therapists costs money.

“We just sort of have the idea that students and faculty take a day that they feel is necessary for them, it’s extremely important for them to continue to be successful academically and not only that. , but mentally,” Sanchez said.

Images of group work performed by students at Cardinal Spellman High School as they work on solutions to support the mental health of their peers.

Joint DP with teachers to address discipline

Students at Oskaloosa High School in rural Oskaloosa, Iowa, chose discipline and disrespect as the problem they would like to solve.

Ava Ridenour, 15, a member of the school’s student council, said altercations and fights have increased at school and at extracurricular events during the pandemic.

The disruptions left some students worried about their safety, she said.

“Just the anxiety of coming to school or being afraid that you can’t take in all the learning you need, or being afraid of struggling in school – all of those things that can lead to anxiety, which then can put you in such a dark place or make you depressed. It can just be a domino effect for other things,” Ridenour said.

Students are in school about eight hours a day, so a safe learning environment is paramount to their mental well-being, said Lawson Morris, 17, a student from Oskaloosa High. who also serves as a facilitator for the NASSP Student Leadership Network on Mental Health.

“Everyone is a creature of their environment, so the people we surround ourselves with have a major impact on our mental health,” he said. “A big part of your life is spent in school, and if the people around you are happy, then you are going to be happy. [be] a reflection on you, and we really don’t want that, because we have a lot of good students in our school.

After noting on sticky notes the possible reasons for the increase in disruptive and disrespectful behavior, the students opted for short professional development sessions for teachers that would be led by students. These sessions would give teachers insight into why students might act the way they did and suggest ways teachers might respond.

“We have been in the classrooms; we sympathize with [teachers]“, said Morris.

Elliot Nelson, 18, a student council member at Oskaloosa High, said students are looking to work in partnership with faculty.

“We don’t want it to be a long conference,” Nelson said. “We want this to be a collaborative discussion. We want him to update them on recent events and how to handle [them].”

Get buy-in from school leaders

The difficult task for the students who participated in the summit is to return to school, obtain the blessing of their various student governments, and then seek the approval of the administrators – if the rest of the student body decides that it is the good direction.

The Oskaloosa students hope to speak to their district school board early next month, and they are optimistic, but realistic, that teachers will participate in student-led professional development sessions.

“There might be a few skeptical teachers, but I think teachers will be extremely receptive,” Morris said.

Carrie Bihn, a teacher who accompanied the Iowa students, said she thought most teachers would accept the students’ proposal.

“I think the teacher buy-in will definitely be there,” said Bihn, who has been at the school for about a decade. “Honestly, I think teachers are going to love learning from kids, because they’re the ones who have an idea of ​​how teenage brains work.”

Bihn said it was “intriguing” to listen and watch the students think.

“Top to bottom we mean student success, kids need to pass their classes and be successful,” she said. “And when the kids explained what their problems were, it was a lot more personal. It wasn’t what I expected. I really didn’t think the kids were going to say that discipline and disrespect was the two main problems in our school…. Sometimes I think only the adults see the discipline in the district.

Eleanor Hurley, the director of health services who also serves as an adviser for the National Honor Society of Cardinal Spellman High School, and Jason Deramo, the director of campus ministry, who accompanied Cardinal Spellman students, said they were not surprised by the topics their students chose to discuss. to concentrate.

“It was eye-opening to see it from a student perspective for sure,” Hurley said. “But we saw stress and anxiety in all settings, not just in students but also in adults. It’s something that’s hot right now, a hot topic, and I think the students approached it with a lot of maturity and expertise. I was very impressed with them.

While students at Cardinal Spellman High School reported that the quiet room for students to decompress was their second most viable solution and something to follow later, Daniel Hodes, the school’s president and principal, seemed favorable to the idea.

There are already areas on campus where students can seek help, such as the nurse’s office, the campus ministry office, a chapel, and a renovated council room. But Hodes said he recognizes not everyone is comfortable entering these spaces.

“Having a fifth space, which would be another opportunity for students to be able to find peace in the day, absolutely,” he said. Hodes said he was also open to his students’ priority solution – mental health days.

“Our faculty and staff have personal days available to them for these reasons, but our students don’t have the same days,” he said. “I think it’s a worthwhile pitch and I’m excited to hear the full pitch when the kids are done.”

This was good news for Sanchez and O’Neill.

“It’s really nice to hear that our ideas are taken seriously, because as a teenager – at least for me – I often feel like I’m being rejected because I’m so young,” said O’Neill. “But it’s nice to know that there are adults out there who are willing to listen and really take our ideas into consideration because we live in different times, especially post-COVID.”

Students said they learned a lot from seeing what their peers across the country had recorded as the top mental health issues in their schools. Some of the issues, like drug addiction, didn’t resonate with everyone.

“I remember thinking that was a tough subject for high school students to talk about,” said Nelson, the Iowa student.

But other subjects were deeply familiar to me.

“A common theme that most people, in many schools, had was stress,” Sanchez said. “Stress is something that causes a lot of other problems in schools, and it’s kind of the root of everything. If you don’t really reduce that, you can’t tackle the other issues.

Listening to students

The three-day mental health summit, which included panel discussions with students and experts, grew out of NASSP’s summer survey, which highlighted student mental health and the lack of resources in schools as major issues for school leaders, said Ann Postlewaite, the organization. community director. The organization hosts a monthly meeting with student leaders on mental health.

Postlewaite said more school leaders are leaning on students for input on how to address these challenges because students are “the voters; it’s the people in the building.

The exercise to find a solution to a pressing problem was also a learning experience for the adults.

Bihn, the Iowa teacher, was struck by the number of student group worksheets that highlighted some version of isolation or lack of belonging as a major concern.

“They all had some kind of problem listed [where] the children felt lonely,” she said. “I’m a repairman, so my first [thought] was like how can i solve this problem? How to fix things? »

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