On Thursday, November 30th, Oyster River High School hosted a community forum to provide an outlet for students, faculty, and community members to discuss mental health. The forum featured speakers who detailed their experience with mental health and included breaks for community members to discuss their thoughts and present to the larger group.
This event followed a week during which the high school focused on spreading awareness around mental illness, which included assemblies for all high school students. Thursday’s forum was led by Oyster River High School’s Mental Health and Wellness Committee, consisting of Grace Smith (‘20), Emma Wiechert (‘19), Genevieve Wiechert (‘20), Grace Robert (‘19), Joe Morrell (‘20), and Kerstin Nielsen (‘19). The high attendance, which included parents, faculty, administration, students, and other members of the community showed a strong support for more dialogue around mental health.
After an opening statement by the school psychologist, Dr. Ryan Long, Grace Smith introduced the student run committee, stating, “our focus is on increasing awareness of mental health, promoting resilience, and spreading the message of hope and recovery. Our goal is to reduce stigma surrounding mental health and to provide resources and strategies to build resilience, and to stress that mental health is treatable and recovery is possible.”
Smith also introduced the first speaker, Erin Hiley Sharp, PhD, an associate professor in Human Development & Family Studies at the University of New Hampshire. Sharp discussed the biosocial perspective on adolescent anxiety. “[Teens] become very self conscious and very hyper aware of what others think of them. This comes with the normal changes associated with being an adolescent,” she explained. She also explained the differences between issues faced by teens today in comparison to past generations. “Social media is a social context that elevates overthinking. There’s no break for adolescents from that feeling of being judged,” she said.
Following a break for community members to discuss questions regarding the presentation, Grace Smith and her mother, Sarah Smith, delivered an emotional speech detailing their experience with Grace’s brother’s mental illness. She detailed Sam’s experience with severe depression, which eventually led to him developing delusions. “He would go through the drawers in the bathroom and throw out any products containing fluoride,” Grace explained. “He refused to use the microwave, so we bought him a personal toaster oven. He believed the WiFi router was infecting our brains, so as you can imagine, he shut the router off multiple times a day.”
Grace explained that through developing paranoia, Sam made the decision to graduate from Oyster River five months early and to not attend the University of Vermont, which he had already received early admission to. “At one point, he had injured himself in a fit of rage by slamming his arm into a wall, shattering his entire lower right arm which required major surgery,” Grace said. “After multiple hospitalizations, over twenty medication trials, and several misdiagnosis, Sam was given what we believe was a final diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder, depressive type.” After explaining the risks of this disorder, which include a greater risk of attempting or dying by suicide, Grace said, “I would be lying if I said I didn’t live in constant fear of his life.”
Despite having dealt with the worst parts of Sam’s illness, Grace is incredibly grateful for him as a brother and loved one. “It is important that we recognize Sam as a human being and that we don’t define him by his illness,” she concluded.
Finally, Michele Watson, Family Network Coordinator for NAMI New Hampshire (National Alliance on Mental Illness), discussed the resources that are available for community members. “There aren’t many [school] districts around the area that would do this, so applaud yourselves, applaud these students, and applaud your community,” she said.
Oyster River High School Principal Suzanne Filippone agreed with Watson’s appreciation, saying, “this forum is important because it shows how students and adults in the community feel strongly about our need to talk about mental health in an open forum to reduce stigma and increase awareness.”
Sadie Garland (‘20), a student who attended the forum, explained how important attending the event was for her, saying, “I have a personal connection to mental health and I wanted to see how the community banded together and reacted to issues that are prevalent in our society.”
Kerstin Nielsen (‘19), a passionate member of the Mental Health and Wellness Committee, explained how important she felt it was for the community to come together. “By opening the conversation, we’re educating people on different aspects of mental illness and that allows people to recognize it in others, recognize it in themselves, and get the help they need,” she said.
Superintendent Dr. James Morse also expressed his gratitude to the students and faculty that spent time organizing and executing a successful event. “This was incredible. This is exactly what we were hoping to achieve in terms of student leadership,” he said.
Although the forum was a huge step forward in opening discussion about mental illness, there is still a long road ahead in terms of creating community and societal change. Oyster River High School is adamant about continuing to make positive changes and supporting student leaders. As the Mental Health and Wellness Committee continues to progress in their mission to provide students with resources, members hope that the community continues to show a widespread support similar to what was seen at the event.
Laurie Foster, Family and Community Support Specialist for NAMI New Hampshire (National Alliance on Mental Illness), expressed her hope for further action, saying, “it’s really about providing hope. It’s more that just talking about it to break the stigma. We have to ask, what can we do about it now that we’re talking about it? What can we do to create changes?”