Mental health has always been emphasized by Oyster River High School (ORHS) as an essential part of our well-being. However, in the midst of a global pandemic, it’s more important than ever to understand your own mental health and to recognize signs of decline in others.
It’s crucial to take care of both our mental health in addition to our physical health, as our state of emotional well-being affects every aspect of our lives. A healthy mentality makes us more productive, proactive, and able to cope with the stress and challenges that we face. In the state of the world today, we are especially susceptible to a decline in mental health because of the increase in isolation, academic stress, and home-life burdens. It’s important to remember that there are people everywhere to support us, especially at the high school. Oyster River is dedicated to developing healthy habits of wellness in students, as well as providing support to students who may be struggling with mental health at home. To answer some of the most prevalent questions surrounding mental health during this time, we turn to the guidance of experts and psychologists at the high school.
Q: Why is mental health important? Why should I be aware of it?
Mental health affects our emotional, psychological, and social well-being and influences how we think, feel, and act. A healthy mental state allows us to maintain good relationships, cope with stress, and make healthy choices. In addition to emotional benefits, mental health can also positively affect our physical health. According to Mental Health by MedlinePlus, maintaining a healthy mental state reduces the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, strokes, and more.
“I think we all know that if we’re not doing well in our mental health, it impacts every aspect of our life,” says Kimberley Sekera, a school counselor at ORHS. She explains that a decline in mental health can often lead to a decrease in academic performance and motivation, along with various other negative effects. If we don’t take the time to care about our emotional health, then we lower our ability to function at our full potential.
Dr. Ryan Long, a school psychologist at ORHS, describes how an unhealthy mental state can guide us down a harmful path. “Without treatment, mental health conditions can often become worse and certainly can lead to thoughts of depression and suicide.” Many people may not realize that they are struggling with mental health, so it’s important to understand signs of decline and to perform frequent emotional self-checks. Maintaining a healthy relationship with mental health can promote positivity in our lives and reduce invasive feelings like stress and anxiety.
Q: What should I do if I feel depressed? If I notice these signs in a friend, how should I seek help?
Hannah Cunningham, a school psychologist at ORHS, urges students to talk to a trusted adult immediately if experiencing symptoms of depression. Though signs of depression can vary among different people, some common symptoms include a change in sleep routines and eating habits, feelings of hopelessness, or loss of interest in the things that we usually enjoy doing. According to the article “Depression Symptoms and Warning Signs” by HelpGuide, other signs can show through an increase in irritability, loss of energy, or difficulty of controlling emotion. “It is important to reach out to an adult, such as a guardian, teacher, or school counselor, if you notice these signs in yourself or someone else… We strongly encourage students to find an adult in the building with whom they feel comfortable talking if they are concerned about something happening in school,” says Cunningham.
Sekera adds that, “reaching out is so important. Especially now in this remote setting, students can really feel that much more [isolated] and alone… it’s super important for students to really know that they are not alone and that there is always help.” The counseling department is always there to support students with mental health, but reaching out is the first step. Especially in high school, there is a stigma around needing help with mental health. It’s important to know that this is absolutely not a sign of weakness, but rather a form of self-care and maturity.
Sekera offers advice for helping a friend who is struggling with mental health. “If a friend is saying things that are a little off, reach out. Err on the side of caution; if it’s nothing then that’s great, but if it is something then we want to make sure that person gets the help they need,” she says. She explains that many students are often worried that the friend may be upset with them for sharing their feelings with an adult. “I’ve been doing this for a long time and almost never is somebody angry… they quickly realize that they are hurting and in a place where they need help. They are [always] thankful that their friend reached out for help.”
Q: How should I deal with suicidal thoughts?
“Reach out for support from a trusted adult immediately. (1-800-273-8255) is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline for 24 [hour] support as well,” says Cunningham. This organization provides free and confidential support to people experiencing emotional crises and is an essential resource for those who need it.
Sekera says that these thoughts “can feel very scary and [isolating]. I can’t stress how important it is to reach out and let someone know.” The online resource Reach Out, an Australian mental health support service for young people, suggests writing your feelings down if you struggle with communicating them verbally. After reaching out and receiving help, it’s important to keep the environment around you a safe place. Removing any harmful substances or objects can remove temptation to self-harm.
Q: How should I deal with stress and anxiety during this time? How can I de-stress?
Long offers advice for reducing the impact of these feelings that can seem overwhelming at times. “I always tell students to control what you can. Staying on top of work is so important [and] taking care of responsibilities that you have control over is step number one. It is much easier and you’re much more emotionally prepared to deal with stressors that you can’t control like parents fighting, [the] job loss of a parent, or stress about money if you’re not falling behind in school and then having to deal with that,” he says. Long explains that when we stay on top of our responsibilities, we place ourselves in a better position to deal with the other stressors in our lives. Especially now, focusing on what we can control is so important. Worrying about issues that we can’t individually change is unproductive and wastes energy that could be used for concentrating on our thoughts, attitude, and actions in the present.
Finding ways to de-stress is essential to maintaining mental health, as it improves sleep and reduces irritability, anxiety, and depression. “People may prefer different activities, but some examples include going for a walk, baking, reading a book, meditating, talking with a friend, or hanging out with a pet,” says Cunningham. More examples are exercise, listening to music, writing, yoga, and aromatherapy. Everyone is different, so identifying what relaxes you is key for de-stressing.
One popular practice used to release feelings of stress and anxiety is meditation. This practice is a way to relax the mind and body through breathing techniques and mindfulness. In addition to stress reduction, it has been proven to have physical benefits, such as lowering blood pressure and reducing the risk of heart disease. There are many online resources to learn and practice meditation, including the Mouth of the River article “Mindfulness Meditation” by Bella Crocco.
Q: How does my schedule/routine impact my mental health? How can I manage that?
Maintaining a routine promotes mental health and wellness through structure and organization. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, our busy schedules and agendas have been replaced with unstructured time. As a result of this, much of the stress we feel is rooted in the lack of a stable schedule to depend on. By creating a routine for ourselves, we are able to increase our productivity and improve our mental health.
Calendars are a common method for scheduling time for everyday activities such as schoolwork, eating, and sleeping. This time management strategy is a great way to stay organized and reduce stress. “Creating a schedule gives you structured time to get things done,” says Sekera. As an efficient use of time and energy, this structure allows us to feel less overwhelmed and more accomplished.
Cunningham offers her advice on creating an effective and long-term routine. “Try to think about who, what, where, and when. Who do I work best around? What do I need to get done? Where is a place I can focus? When do I have time to do my work? Asking yourself those questions and then creating a realistic agenda [that includes] breaks is important for a healthy routine.” She recommends writing down and prioritizing what we aim to accomplish in a given day; that said, focusing on one day at a time is important, as it prevents us from feeling overwhelmed. She suggests setting a timer on a mobile device for 30 minutes, working until the alarm goes off, and then taking a short break; “this may help you stay focused for an extended period of time while still allowing for breaks,” Cunningham says.
Q: How does screen time during remote learning impact my mental health? How can I reduce my screen time? Why is it important to take breaks?
The physical effects of excessive screen time are not the only issues we should be concerned about; this aspect of remote learning has also taken a toll on student mental health. According to Technology, Screen Time, and your Mental Health by the Center for Anxiety Disorders, students who consume more screen time experience higher levels of anxiety, depression, and loneliness. These feelings can often develop into mental health conditions, so it’s important to mitigate our screen time when possible to prevent them.
Cunningham strongly suggests writing notes in a notebook rather than on a computer and borrowing a physical copy of a book from the library that would otherwise be read online. She recommends “trying to plan breaks in your day to give your eyes and brain a break. Sometimes it is easy to get into the habit of looking at your phone, watching TV, or playing video games during breaks or after school. However, it is important to remember that those are screens too.” Rather than increasing screen time during breaks, she suggests trying a de-stressing hobby that allows us to detach from our computers, such as taking a walk or baking. “Taking breaks like this will improve your mental health and help you stay more focused when it is time to work.”
Sekera expresses similar ideas about the importance of taking breaks between classes. “When you take a quick break and come back you’re more productive,” she says. Sekera suggests taking a moment between classes to move around the house to give ourselves a break from staring at screens. According to a psychological analysis by Robert Pozen, a senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management, taking a break every 75 to 90 minutes makes students more productive and focused.
Q: Why is connecting with peers important for mental health? What are some ways that I can connect with peers safely?
Jennifer Wegmann, a professor of the health and wellness studies department at Binghamton University, says that a “significant amount of research has shown that engaging socially is one of the best ways to cope and manage with the stressors in your life.” She says that interacting socially through apps like Facetime and other virtual platforms are great ways to safely connect and maintain relationships with our friends and family during this time.
Cunningham also adds that, “staying connected with peers is important because it supports mental well-being and helps people feel a sense of community and belonging. In a time where many people are more isolated than ever before, keeping those relationships strong can help boost resilience and reduce stress.” According to her, human connection is something that we need, now more than ever.
Q: How can I stay positive during this time?
Long explains that the best way to maintain a positive mentality during this time is by “taking things one day at a time… I’m looking at the light at the end of the tunnel and [keeping in mind] that nothing is permanent.” He says that it’s important to remember to focus on what we can currently control. We can adopt a more positive mindset by making the best out of our difficult situation and understanding that challenges like the COVID-19 pandemic are part of life.
Sekera says identifying and focusing on the things that are positive in our life is another way to promote a healthy mentality. “It’s important to find silver linings. Otherwise, when we’re talking about mental health, all that we’re focusing on are those things that are really hard. If we just focus on those things that are really hard, it is really easy to fall down.” She explains that the question, “what are the things we can be hopeful or thankful for now, and looking forward?” is one that can be very beneficial in the effort to maintain a positive attitude.
Q: What kind of mental health support is offered at the high school?
Oyster River High School houses four school counselors, two school psychologists, and a Master Licensed Alcohol and Drug Counselor (MLADC), all available for students to access for mental health support. There are also many online resources that students and families can find on the school website. The school also provides students with connections to community support for mental health if needed.
More specifically, mental health support at the high school ranges from advisory bystander training to private individual counseling. Through the Oyster River High School Multi-Tiered System of Student Support (MTSSS), the school brings in many layers of mental health and strives to inform and provide students with access to the support they need. Advisory activities such as suicide prevention and bystander training are considered preventative measures for mental health. For direct student support, the school counselors are available to address the specific needs of students who are struggling. Individual and specialized counseling opportunities are offered through Oyster River’s contract with Community Partners, the mental health agency for Strafford county, or through referrals to private therapists.
Especially at this moment in time, taking care of ourselves and our mental health is essential. If you are ever struggling, the Oyster River Counseling Department is always there to help you through any challenges. The first step to receiving help is by contacting your counselor. The contacts of the high school counselors are listed below.
Kim Cassamas: firstname.lastname@example.org
Heather Machanoff: email@example.com
Jason Baker: firstname.lastname@example.org
Kimberley Sekera: email@example.com