From Personal Experience to Movement
The statistic is staggering: suicide is the second leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 10 and 18 in the U.S, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. It is a child who feels like there’s no hope. It is a child whose mental illness interferes with their activities. It is a child who doesn't seek help because of the stigma attached to a mental health problem. The impact is far more than the statistics. Mental illness impacts a student’s academic performance, quality of life, and affects others out of concern for these students. I realized that this problem may arise from inadequacies in schools when dealing with mental health issues.
In my freshman year of high school, I experienced mental health problems due to unexpected life changes. I felt alone combating my struggle due to the lack of communication about mental health at my school. I experienced a gap in the availability of my counselor when I needed this type of assistance. I questioned whether teachers had been trained on how to recognize red flags of a mental disorder and how to effectively help those in need. Towards the end of the school year, my mental health problem worsened; therefore, I sought therapy outside of school and recovered.
Through my own experience, I became aware that mental health is a clear and present problem in my school. I noticed students not seeking help when they have a problem, a lack of mental health awareness, and the counseling department's main focus on academics rather than personal problems. It is a taboo to speak of mental health at my school which creates a greater barrier in seeking help, making students feel alone. Even if a student is not directly afflicted with a mental health condition, it is no exaggeration to say that seeing their peers suffering the detrimental effects of mental illness and suffering helplessly is enough to cause concern. This issue matters to me because of the difficulties I encountered in school when combatting my mental health problem, my empathy for my fellow classmates, and because it disturbs me if my peers are needlessly suffering.
In the summer of my sophomore year of high school, I participated in the Kaleidoscope Summer Fellowship which is an interest-driven fellowship for high school students in the DC-area who want to accelerate their engagement with real-world issues and learn skills necessary to take action on those issues. In this program, each student worked on an independent project of their own interest. I met Ben Ballman, a high school student in Maryland, in the Kaleidoscope Summer Fellowship. He told me that he also noticed a glaring issue in his school: the lack of mental health awareness and the counseling department’s struggle to effectively address mental health needs. Ben and I worked on similar projects: to understand the student mental health crisis in our county and explore ways schools can improve their resources. To accomplish this, we both created a survey and distributed it to high school students in our respective county to better understand student’s mental health needs, what schools are doing well, and how schools can improve. The survey also allowed students to give input on changes they want to see made.
We collected a total of ~ 750 responses. When we asked students to rate their opinion of how well the counseling department at their school actively prevents mental health issues among students from a scale of 1(poor)- 5(excellent job) most students gave a rate of “2”. Responses like these were evidence that action needs to be taken to create a friendly mental health environment in our districts. We used insights from the data to start a conversation with our respective school boards. To further make an impact, Benjamin, Ben, and I teamed up to launch DMV Students for Mental Health Reform with an effort to build a coalition of high school students in the DMV area that can push for mental health reform.