Opinion: Mental Health Issues in Schools Continue to Isolate Students

Updated: Oct 19, 2021

The human brain is a complex structure that lets us discern and shape the world around us through thought and action. Brain health and its malfunctions should be separated from stigma and treated as if we would treat a broken wrist or an ankle sprain. Sadly, mental health is a topic that is often pushed away, locked in the closet or thrown under the covers, in hopes of no one finding it. The stigma associated with mental health is common, especially in Pacific Islander and Asian American communities, and suicide is the leading cause of death for those between the ages of 10-21 in these communities.

One in every five students is diagnosed with a mental health disorder. That means in a classroom of 30 students, six of them would be experiencing or dealing with issues such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, substance abuse, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). According to the Michigan Health Lab, most of these disorders are treatable, yet at least 80% of the youth affected don’t get the help they need. The consequences of untreated mental health disorders can be fatal. In 2017, there were almost 6,500 suicide deaths among adolescents and young adults between the ages of 15-24. That year alone, 17.2 percent of high school students seriously considered attempting suicide and 7.4 percent attempted suicide, according to the 2017 Youth Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System.

This raises the obvious question: if the problem is so prevalent why isn’t enough being done to address it?

Former at-large board member of Fairfax County school board, Mr. Ryan McElveen told Lenses in an interview that “mental health is the #1 issue in Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS).” As an FCPS alumnus, McElveen said that mental health in schools is still an adamant problem in the school system. According to him, while the county has tried to concentrate on the whole child and introduce programs to support mental and emotional health, there is still a vast amount of room for improvement.

From a student’s perspective, dealing with mental health issues in high school is extremely difficult. “I think grown-ups don’t understand how difficult students have it. Our parents expect us to bring home perfect grades and do the most extracurriculars and activities, our friends except us to keep up with the latest social media trends and talk to that cute kid in our class, our coaches expect us to be the fastest, strongest, and best player on our sports team. If you look around there’s so much pressure on a high school student. And, on top of that, we always have to have a smile on our face,” said Emma , a high school graduate describing her experience dealing with depression and anxiety. Her name has been changed in this article to protect her identity.

Towards the end of freshman year in high school, Emma was self-diagnosed with depression and anxiety. She said, “my grades were terrible, I wasn’t sleeping or eating properly, I didn’t want to hang out with my friends and I barely spoke to anyone. I felt lost and I didn’t know where to turn.” But, that’s not how Emma always was. Before high school, she considered herself a bright student, bringing home perfect grades, actively competing in her swim team, and passionate about playing piano and guitar. Her excitement about high school quickly wavered as pressure creeped in. Emma’s grades started to slip, and she found herself struggling in school with homework or grasping concepts being taught in class. Emma recalls, “I tried asking my teachers but I felt that instead of wanting to help me, they patronized me and made me feel stupid.” She felt judged, rushed, and unwelcomed when she turned to her guidance counselors. Emma said, “I was too embarrassed to go to my friends or parents and tell them I was having a hard time in school, so I ended up keeping it to myself — and that’s when everything got a lot worse.”

In tenth grade, Emma attempted to take her own life. She left a note for her parents underneath her mattress, climbed on the balcony of her apartment, and jumped, wanting the pain to fall with her.

Fortunately, Emma survived the fall despite suffering extensive injuries.

Recovering on her hospital bed, Emma regrets her decision. She recalls that the moment she jumped, she didn’t want to die, she just wanted the pain to go away. That’s when she decided she needed help. She talked to her parents and started attending therapy sessions. Her doctor diagnosed her with clinical depression and generalized anxiety disorder. Although it was a slow recovery, for the first time in months, Emma felt happier. She was smiling more, hanging out with her friends again, and doing well in school. Today, Emma is a rising sophomore in college blissfully following her dreams and feeling grateful for the small things in life.

Not every suicide attempt gets a happy ending. With every teen suicide, the world loses the potential, knowledge, and beauty of a young adult.

McElveen says one of the main parts of the problem is that students feel uncomfortable talking to their teachers, counselors, or other trusted adults. School counselors are often overwhelmed by the number of students they are assigned and cannot do justice to each individual. Maybe, that’s why Emma felt distanced from her counselor. The American School Counselor Association recommends that for every 250 students, one guidance counselor should be employed in the school. In the 2014-15 school year, only 3 states met this recommendation.

“One of the most important steps we have to take is destigmatizing the counselor’s office. Students have to understand that counselors are there to guide and support students, not push them away,” McElveen said. But, that’s easier said than done.

During his time as a school board member, McElveen has worked on breaking the barriers between students in mental health. He organized the Our Minds Matter Teen Summit at the Fairfax County Public Schools Mental Health and Wellness Conference in 2018 and implemented important reforms in the areas of student mental health support. He worked to connect students to a system that would allow them to advocate for themselves and their classmates and he helped make sure that these students knew how to advocate.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, suicide deaths in adolescents have been rising for nearly two decades, with an especially concerning spike since 2010. Furthermore, children’s hospital visits for suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts have doubled since 2008. With rapidly growing numbers, most counties can’t keep up. Fairfax County has a shortage of both beds and mental health hospitals, according to McElveen, which is why it’s essential for funding to be directed towards mental health in youth. As a society, it is integral to redirect funds towards mental health and make resources for students and staff available in all schools.

How do we break a stigma that has been embedded in our society for decades?

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illnesses, it’s crucial to raise our voices against the stigma. Steps as simple as educating yourself and those around you, talking openly about mental health, and showing compassion to those around you affected by mental health disorders can help overcome the stigma of mental illnesses.

When talking about mental health in schools, one of the key things to understand is that it’s not just an issue in the school communities. “It’s not just a school-wide issue — it’s a broader community problem,” McElveen said. “And, because it affects our entire community, it’s time for another discussion.”

In order for change to occur, policymakers need to take leadership. “As a county with lots of competition and pressure, we need to be leading the discussion not only at local levels but at national levels, as well,” McElveen pointed out. While McElveen has helped contribute significantly to overcoming mental health stigmas, he believes that there is still work to be done. He recommends that policymakers and the administration should remain engaged with students in this issue and student representatives should use various avenues to make their voices heard.

School systems cannot be blamed for every suicide. Instead of urging schools systems to “do more” or “do a better job,” we must focus on stronger leadership that commits to reducing sucide and depression numbers, more screening and assessments that can help detect individuals who may need help and can be expanded into routine health care visits, and better training for school psychologists, counselors, and teachers so they are better prepared to handle mental health cases among students.

Integrating a new structure in school systems is challenging, especially when it requires a cultural change. Much work is needed to improve early detection and provide support to teens: change doesn’t just happen overnight. But, hopefully, Emma’s story can help turn the tide and open conversations.

No matter what the issue is, as students we must remember McElveen’s advice: “One of the strongest tools we have is our voices and it’s important to know how to use them.”

If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK).

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