This guest blog post was written by four current Clayton High School seniors
In March 2018, a Kirkwood High School senior, Brian Stieglitz, died by suicide. The freshly stinging loss led the community to rally around the issue of mental health, and has made changes in the school system that focus on lessening the stresses on its students.
According to one Kirkwood junior, “we’ve pushed for no-homework weekends… where the teachers can’t assign us homework.” She believes that these “no-homework-weekends” have helped improve the mental health of Kirkwood students by allowing them time to catch-up, or just catch a breath. The school has also seen a larger awareness of the resources available to students struggling with their mental health. “There’s always grade counselors, and there’s walk-in counselors, and the gifted counselor. We also have college counselors, if that’s the source of your struggle, which it is for a lot of upperclassmen. There’s always people who will be willing to listen to your problems, and help you get through whatever you’re going through.”
Mental illness can control a student’s life. Of course, those struggling still have to go to school in most cases, and this poses a challenge.
According to the 2015 Clayton High School Globe article, “State of Mind,” 58.51% of CHS Students do not feel as though their school provides an interface to talk about mental health. Students living with mental health issues often don’t know where to go for help.
While Clayton High School has counselors and a social worker, one Clayton student says that they “don’t see [them] being utilized… none of us know about it.” Without someone to help cope with mental illness, it can add tremendous stress on top of the pressures of school. 40.74% of CHS students have personally struggled with issues of mental health and 33.16% of CHS students feel that their lives have been seriously affected by mental health issues. In addition, according to Mental Health Children and Teens, approximately 50% of students age 14 and older with a mental illness drop out of high school. Furthermore, many can feel even more trapped if the support they need is not there.
“Teachers look at you differently. Especially for me it was really hard after I was hospitalized. My teachers definitely looked at me differently, and my abilities. And that’s kinda weird… to deal with.”
-Clayton High School Student
Mental health is an issue that affects us all. Yet, oftentimes mental health issues aren’t talked about, and people suffering are left with little support. Nowhere is this more relevant and important than in our schools. Those suffering in schools are not alone in what they are going through.
Common social stigmas toward mental illness still reign strong despite the increased attention it received in recent years, especially in high schools. A U.S. Surgeon General report indicates that 1 in 5 children and adolescents will face a significant mental health condition during their school years.
Outside influences such as social media, peer pressure, family issues, and college deadlines are some of the most common reasons why a high schooler may struggle. Frequently, suicide and depression become punchlines on social media, leading many to make light of these issues. Although mental health is addressed in many high school health classes, often students take it as a joke and dismiss this vital information even if they themselves struggle with mental illness on a regular basis.
Although the phrase is “laughter is the best medicine,” the humor can hide something much darker. Clayton High School students talk about how their peers tend to brush off mental health with statements like “Everyone’s depressed, everyone’s got anxiety,” and “‘Oh, I’m dying!’ without even listening to them (those struggling with mental health issues).” The simple jokes and thoughtless comments often hint to a larger problem. Difficulty sleeping, eating, and focusing, feeling helpless, losing interest in things you once loved, and an overall feeling of emptiness are all early signs of depression. These traits may seem fairly commonplace in an average high school and can lead to even more joking statements being made. But what many people fail to notice is that just because the symptoms are general and common does not mean that they are not severe to the person experiencing them.
With the rising usage of the aforementioned statements, students saying they want to commit suicide alongside comments of a similar nature in a lighthearted sense makes spotting these signs more difficult. While humor and dismissal can help ease tension, it merely pushes aside the weight of the matter, leading to a cynicism of sorts. The arising “dark humor” also influences teachers, parents, and guardians around these students, causing them to disregard possible signs of suicidal thoughts or tendencies. Allowing this habitual passiveness makes reality hit that much harder when a devastating event caused by unaddressed mental illness occurs.
The CHS school nurse and K-12 health services coordinator describes some of the struggles she sees her students go through as “mental health is definitely on the rise. I’ve seen a shift from when I came six years ago; now mental health is probably 60-65% of what I do, and the rest is medical.” She believes the workload to be excessive and agrees that social media has a strong influence on a student’s mental wellness. “This is a real problem, [and we should] maybe look at what other are schools are doing… like Kirkwood.” In terms of school policy changes, however, her belief is that “Until the kids start to mobilize, nothing’s going to change.”
“With all the recent school shootings, intruder drills have just kind-of become a part of our societal norms. Even if you didn’t have anxiety before, you probably have some now.”
-Clayton school nurse
Despite the grim nature of this subject, numerous resources exist for those struggling with mental health; specifically, Places for People. This non-profit organization provides professional counseling, support systems, and helps those struggling with mental illness lead healthy, successful lives.
Places for People also teaches strategies for helping those with mental illness, referring to it as “mental health first aid.” Mental health first aid teaches you how to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illnesses and substance use disorders in your community. By allowing not only students, but people of all ages, greater, more convenient access to help, the recovery process can be much smoother, and we can begin to iron out the belittling stigmas towards mental illness in our society. That being said, if you believe yourself or someone you care about to be showing signs of mental illness, do not hesitate to seek out support; whether it be someone you know or Places for People.