With depression and anxiety on the rise in adolescents and suicide being the #2 leading cause of death in people ages 15-24, having a strong mental health support system is especially crucial in high schools. Misconceptions about mental illness start within homes and in school systems, so breaking down the stigma surrounding mental health is particularly pertinent early on. School fosters relationships, whether with peers or with teachers, and often provides an environment where students look to grades and friendships for approval and self-worth. It is also where youth learn the effects of their behavior on others – bullying, conflicts, and exclusion can all negatively impact a person’s confidence, starting in schools.
As a student at the #1 ranked public high school, I was constantly swarmed with tests, homework, and other difficult tasks that could easily overwhelm many and cause burnout among my peers. In addition to the rigor of our coursework, there was also competitiveness and pressure placed on individuals by themselves, due to the high-achieving nature of our student body, creating a seemingly toxic work environment. With all this in mind, as well as a personal connection and passion for mental health education, I aspired to build a strong wellness system within our school to help the student body realize their needs and the importance of mental health education, awareness, and treatment when necessary.
Although there was already a Mental Health Club at my school, it’s presence was so insignificant that I and many others were not aware of its existence. This was concerning to me, and as soon as I joined the club, the few students involved and I started to propose ways to increase our impact on the student body.
Our president at the time came up with the idea of Green Ribbon Day, a mandatory full day of school dedicated solely to mental health and wellness education. Once approved by our school’s principal and administration, we were able to recruit over 50 mental and physical health professionals that came in to teach workshops to the students. From Tibetan singing bowls (used traditionally by Buddhist monks for meditation practice) to hearing from sports therapists, the possibilities were endless. Students were able to choose from a wide range of workshops to attend on Green Ribbon Day, and it was well received overall by the class.
Once the role of president was passed on to me in the following year, I quickly realized the difficulties in planning such an important event, as well as the need for steady mental health resources year round. As successful as Green Ribbon Day was, it was not enough to only have one day in the year be dedicated to mental health – every day requires the same attention to wellness, especially for developing students.
Thanks to the success and traction built from our first Green Ribbon Day, my school decided to hire a year-round wellness team for the student body. Furthermore, with the help of the newly hired professional team (including a licensed therapist, a psychologist, social work interns, etc.), we were able to expand Green Ribbon Day across our entire technical school district of 4 schools, reaching more than double the amount of students we initially had.
The challenge was now getting students involved in the process with the club, and truly interested/invested in their own mental health. Although many resources can be and were offered, they meant nothing if students did not actively seek out what is provided to them. We found that the weekly stress-relief drawing and yoga classes with our new wellness team had very little turnout. Unless it was a mandatory school day (like Green Ribbon Day), students did not want or feel the need to participate in wellness activities.
Despite our low turnout, the students who did show up for the offerings provided gave very positive feedback. Meanwhile, I still noticed the majority of students equally stressed in school and in their personal lives. These were students who could benefit from the workshops and tips our wellness team had to offer, but would not come.
With phrases like “I’m gonna kill myself” after every minor inconvenience, jokes commonly made about mental health illness are often normalized in high school settings and belittle the importance of the subject. Besides that, the ever present stigma surrounding mental health that exists within society and funnels into the school system has an inevitable effect on the student population. Even after sending multiple advertising emails and hanging posters around displaying the wellness resources our school could offer, there was very little interest. When asking a few classmates as to why, many noted being too busy, too embarrassed, or perhaps feeling as though they could work through their stress and anxiety on their own.
So how do we increase curiosity and interest for a topic that has widely been regarded as taboo?
- To start, I have found that emphasizing the importance of wellness beyond your current situation helps a lot. Mental health goes beyond feeling stressed about a grade in high school, if not managed properly, it can severely impact your future. Equally as important is helping others realize the normality of mental health illnesses. You don’t necessarily have to be severely depressed or have an eating disorder to care. Issues like anxiety or just stress often present themselves in ways that have been seen as “normal teenage behavior” (such as irritability, fidgeting, etc.). This is a misconception that needs to be corrected.
- Make time for wellness. Since it is often regarded as an “extra” by young adults, it is crucial for schools and mentors to create mandatory time to set aside for mental education. Events like Green Ribbon Day were most successful because students were required to attend, and ultimately generated positive feedback for what they learned. In addition, we were able to work in wellness education into Physical Education and Fitness classes in our curriculum. Finding time in school or work schedules for wellness is pivotal, especially when working towards a better future where discussing mental health is no longer stigmatized.
- Create ways to make wellness fun. Whether it was dancing Zumba to pop songs or learning how to cook healthy meals to help your mind and body, the most popular and well-received workshops were ones that went beyond traditional mental health lectures.
Especially in the school environment, managing the challenges that students face is easier for some than others. The reality is that a majority of teenagers are dealing with symptoms of some sort of mental health concern, and disregard for these symptoms can lead to depression, decreased performance, and increased risk of substance abuse.
This can be majorly avoided through education and normalization of mental health and wellness, and it is a critical step that schools should take in having a successful and healthy student body.