As the school year begins its second quarter, students in every grade are starting to get into a rhythm. The freshman are no longer intimidated by the concept of high school or upperclassmen, while the sophomores are beginning to settle into their second year and feeling at home. As the underclassmen begin to relax, the upperclassmen are starting to panic. Juniors start worrying about the impending standardized test that will shape the next stage of their life. The already mentally taxing tests are then made worse by the pressure of high parent expectations and their own hopes. Doing poorly on these test can be a blow to one’s self esteem and crush many dreams. Seniors are then in a stew about their own test results, exploring colleges, and walking through the halls torn between fears of failure and the excitement of “what if.” Everyone in this relatively tight knit, controlled and structured community, is dealing with their own issues, struggles and triumphs and not fully aware of anyone else around them.
Mental health has been a growing concern in today’s high schools around the nation. As stress levels and expectations rise for students, administrators and teachers are becoming more understanding of this problem and changing their approach to how school should look for students. When we talked to Dr. Brandy Lovelady Mitchell, the principal at Kent Innovation High School, she mentioned how the relationship between the students and faculty is key for addressing and identifying mental health illnesses. She talked about how students may feel more comfortable in the familiar environment of the school, and they are more likely to talk about their mental health with teachers and administrators they trust. Many schools are beginning to provide services like one on one therapy along with group therapy sessions. These in school sessions often take advantage of students being in a place they trust.
Many schools have also started adopting programs like the Kent School Services Network (KSSN). KSSN works with 7 school districts in the greater Grand Rapids area and in 27 buildings. KSSN focuses on the needs of children and many times that involves looking at what the family needs. KSSN looks at the needs of children like a pyramid, the base is built of physical needs, food, water, and shelter. Sitting on top of that is the need to feel safe. The step is the need to feel belonged and loved. The second highest layer is the need for a high self-esteem. The final point of the pyramid is often not reached by many and is not as crucial as the others. This step is self actualization. This pyramid of need is referred to as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need. Without one of the layers in the foundation children, and adults alike, cannot achieve wellness and success. This is why KSSN focuses on the fundamental needs. Students cannot build up if they have unstable footing. For example, a student who doesn’t feel safe at home, cannot focus on feeling belonged by making friends. Without any one of these needs met, with exception of self actualization, it is challenging to have mental wellness.
Lovelady Mitchell also discussed what schools don’t have the power to do. She said many students still don’t feel comfortable talking about mental health, so the school is often kept in the dark and unable to help. Some teacher’s own beliefs can often spread the stigma surrounding mental illnesses. According to i understand, “Stigma is the #1 reason why someone would not seek treatment for mental illness; education and awareness are vital to saving and changing lives.” When we asked a teacher about mental health in schools, she came back to this issue.
Brenda Perry, the biology teacher at Kent Innovation told us, “I believe that as educators it is our responsibility to create an environment where students feel comfortable seeking out assistance when they are struggling with mental health issues.” Stressing again that without an accepting environment it is harder for students to feel comfortable talking about their internal struggles. Perry then said, “I hope that all of my students know that if they are struggling with a mental health or personal issue, that I will work with them to make sure they get the support they need.”
Perry is an example of why Lovelady Mitchell prides her school on the faculty always being open and sensitive to every student. This is a goal many schools are aiming for but few have fully achieved. There also has to be a balance of understanding students live a stressful life and giving students real world expectations to prepare them for the coming years in the work force.
In the halls of the high school the underclassmen are now standing on a freshly stabilized layer and focusing on their next step. The incoming tests are a threat to the junior’s esteem. The 16 and 17 year-olds are pondering the unrealistic worst case scenarios. Many stuck on thoughts about what it means if they do poorly. Seniors are unsure what path will be best for their future. The possibilities and options are overwhelming and hard to confront. All these thoughts have to be running parallel to the everyday school day. Thinking about failure when there is a big math test tomorrow, trying to find time to study for the SAT while trying to write a book report. The internal struggle is made worse by teen’s fear of appearing weak to their peers. It takes strong characters to handle the stresses of high school today and stronger personalities to talk about their mental health.
by Keegan McGonigal
About the Author
Keegan McGonigal is currently an intern with i understand for the 2016-2017 school year. He is a senior at Kent Innovation High School, soccer player, and mental health advocate.