Explanation of the Problem
Students at my school, like students all over the world, suffer from mental health challenges that are not met by the school. We currently have one counselor for all of the high school (over 400 students). We currently have two learning specialists that are only in the high school with no learning specialists for grades K-8. My school is also the number one private school in Virginia, meaning that there are great pressures on the students, teachers, and faculty to keep up this excellence, which can be a catalyst for a surge in mental illnesses. In fact, when interviewing the high school’s guidance counselor, the overall mental health for “many students is low.”
Institutional Recommended Changes:
- Hire more counselors
My school currently has three counselor K-12. With over 1,000 students, this averages about 350 students per counselor. Though these three counselors are all full-time, asking them to take care of 350 students each, along with any faculty or staff, is a monumental feat. Hiring more counselors across the whole school, both full- and part-time could create a safer environment. With this hiring, identity should be a factor as the three counselors currently at Potomac are all white females, which has made it uncomfortable for some folks to speak to them.
2. Hire more learning specialists
In the high school, Potomac has two full-time learning specialists crammed in a small room towards the back of the school. Many students don’t even know that they are there. From personal experience, I understand the negative effects this can have on a student. Without any learning specialists K-8, I went undiagnosed with ADHD until my junior year of high school, which is a somewhat common story at my school. By hiring more learning specialists and conducting tests on kids K-8, Potomac can address learning differences early on, benefitting the school, teachers, and students.
3. Educate faculty and staff on mental health
Faculty and staff are not well-versed on mental health issues and thus say and do things that can impact their students in a negative manor. Having teachers that describe anxiety as an “excuse” or depression as “weak” is detrimental to the student body’s mental health for obvious reasons. If required to go through basic mental health and sensitivity training, faculty can be better equipped to recognise mental health issues and address them in effective ways.
4. Frequent and extensive mental health screenings
Potomac currently has one 15-minute mental health survey a year. First of all, 15 minutes is not nearly enough time to extensively understand and properly be able to help any student. Secondly, the beginning of this survey is filled with questions about the persons identity such as what grade they came to Potomac, their current age, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, etc that can easily identify they more diverse students that Potomac, as a predominately white institution, has a limited amount of. Lastly, having just one survey per year is not nearly as comprehensive as Potomac has the ability to be since, as the high school guidance counselor described to me, the mental health of our students fluctuates over the course of the year.
Curriculum Recommended Changes:
- Add a psychology course to the school
Currently, Potomac offers courses such as Film and Literature, Speech that Matters, Linear Algebra, and other speciality courses, but does not have a single psychology course that is not offered through GOA. As a result, many students simply do not take psychology and remain unknowledgeable to the mental health world. As a result, some students remain ignorant to the struggles that many are dealing with and thus are not able to properly help their peers.
2. Mental Health Week/Month
Sunday October 3rd to Saturday October 9th is mental health awareness week and May is mental health awareness month. Taking advantage of one of these times could be a great way to educate the Potomac community on mental health by having classes in which signs of mental health struggles and ways to help those suffering are taught. It is also a way to make mental health less taboo to speak about and thus make the community more open.
3. Expand upon the required mental health education
Virginia requires mental health education to be taught to students grades 9 and 10 through Bill SB953. The extent of the mental health education given to grades 9 and 10 at my school are a one-hour class detailing the differences between abnormal and normal mental health challenges (i.e. Big D vs Little D depression). By expanding on this programming to have a one-hour class each month (for example), students in grades 9 and 10 can be truly educated about mental health rather than implying fulfilling the bare minimum the law requires. This could mean more education about self-care, how to cope when you feel anxious, healthy coping mechanisms and other important mental health education.
Other Recommended Changes:
- Mental Health Corner in the weekly email
Every week, an email is sent out to the entire high school community detailing the schedule for the week, any assemblies, birthdays, community service opportunities, and more. However, there is nothing in this email that can help students with mental health. The school has created a padlet with websites and videos that may be able to help some students, but many students do not know it exists. Having a mental health part of the weekly email could be filled with this padlet, other links, notifying the student body of resources already available that they may not be aware of (such as the learning resource centre), and more resources to get help if needed.
2. Create a stronger bond within the community
As a very competitive school, one can imagine that the relationships between students can be improved. One recommended improvement, as given by the student body to the administration last year is more frequent grade meetings, more interactions between students across different grades, and more ability to get to know our teachers.
3. Utilise forms for students to be able to talk about the mental health
Using the DC Public school model, shown to the right, students can come forward too discuss their feelings in order to begin getting help without having to start with a sometimes anxiety-provoking face-to-face meeting. This form can also be administered once a month as a quick mental health check-in that can help the school understand the changing feelings of their students throughout the year.
4. Keep students and parents in the loop
Potomac has a tendency to not tell students, parents, and those outside of the administration what changes are being made and how. As a result, if any of the before-mentioned changes are currently in the works, the student body and their parents have no idea. By staying touch, the whole community would have a better understanding of what is going on, which reassures and reduces anxiety on the part of students. When the students and parents have a better understanding of events, scheduling, and what to expect in the future, they can relax and focus their attention on other things like schoolwork.
5. Consistency is key
Students at my school frequently critique the administration for consistently using “one-and-done” as the basis of helping the student body. When it comes to diversity, sexual assault, mental illness, or any other tough conversation, Potomac is infamous for having one conversation or program before never mentioning the topic again. By making these conversations consistent, our community will feel more supported and be better educated than any singular action could make us.
6. Be on the same page
In order to be consistent, our administration needs to be on the same page. In talking to my school’s guidance counselor, the administration often does not prepare the list of programs well in advance, but chooses them as they go. For example, once a week, the high school has an assembly. The topics range from community service, student presentations, diversity work, mental health assemblies, talent shows, and everything in between. However, these are not planned at the beginning of the year, but rather planned as the year goes on. If these events could be planned well in advance, they could run more smoothly as well as be spaced out overtime in order to create consistency.
7. Listen, listen, listen
Student voices should be prioritised in this conversation. Though adults may not always want to, it is crucial to prioritise the students’ feedback in n academic institution. Students are the only ones who can speak to what they need and if a student or group of students in telling the administration what needs to be changed, the administration must listen and cooperate (when the demand is appropriate, of course).
Check your own school and leave a comment below!
Does your school have at least one counselor per 250 students?
Does your school have extensive, comprehensive, and frequent mental health screenings for its students?
Does your school offer and/or require mental health education for its students, faculty, and staff?
Is your school following the mental health education laws put in place by their state? Check using the interactive map on this website: https://www.today.com/health/today-analysis-more-states-requiring-mental-health-education-law-t162822
Where does your state rank amongst the youth mental health rankings?
Comment below the answers to these questions. Were you surprised? Do you think the answers to these questions are affecting your school’s community? Why or why not? How do you think your school could change for the better?