The national mental health crisis has not evaded Oyster River High School (ORHS), where the student body has resoundingly advocated for additional support and resources in a recent survey. Their call for more attention surrounding the issue is opening doors to new conversations on how the Oyster River community can support the mental health concerns of students, starting with a student-led mental health panel this week.
Students’ responses to the school-wide survey sent out by the ORHS senate in the fall prompted the student leaders to focus on addressing their peers’ mental health concerns and overall mental well-being. Subsequently, on March 2nd at 6:00 pm, Senate will host a community mental health panel in the ORHS auditorium featuring students, teachers, and a mental health professional from the New Hampshire branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
Panelists will bring their own experiences and knowledge surrounding mental health to the discussion by answering a set of pre-prepared questions. Attendees will then have the opportunity to continue the conversation with additional questions taken from the audience. The panel will be the first step in addressing students’ needs and will act as the starting point for many future mental health conversations to come.
Lucas Savage (‘24), a member of Senate, has been an integral part of the planning process for the panel, and says the event directly relates to the goal of Senate: “kids’ wellbeing and how to help the student body.” Savage will be one of the student panelists and volunteered to be on the panel in hopes that the overall event, as well as sharing his personal mental health journey, will “change some people’s lives for the better.”
According to Jaclyn Jensen, an ORHS social studies teacher and the senate advisor, the goal of the mental health panel is addressing students’ “desire to have more support,” as well as “de-stigmatizing conversations about mental health, and also talking about what our strategies for supporting students—but really anybody who’s dealing with this—are, because I think we can all benefit from strategies to manage our mental health.”
Jensen is not alone in her belief that the Oyster River Cooperative School District (ORCSD) is in need of a conversation surrounding the mental health needs of not just students, but all community members. Marjke Yatsevitch, an educator for 15 years, says, “it’s super important that we acknowledge the level to which it’s pervasive in our lives. I really don’t think that any of us are untouched by the concentric circles out from the types of things that happen as a result of mental health crises in our community.”
Yatsevitch also mentions, “I’m seeing more and more pervasiveness of mental health, but that’s also because, over the last 15 or 20 years, we are, as a society, […] thinking about mental health through a different lens and it’s less about hiding it and more about being willing to be vulnerable.” Yatsevitch will be a panelist not only as a teacher with direct contact to students’ mental health struggles, but as someone whose personal history has made mental health “a central part” of her life.
Shannon Caron, the director of counseling at ORHS, has the numbers to ascertain that “there’s definitely been an increase with mental health needs that we’ve recognized this school year.” Combined with an overall increase in the “flow of students accessing on-call counselors,” the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) taken by ORHS students in 2021 indicates that “post-COVID, the number of students who reported feeling sad almost every day went up 11% from the 2019 data.”
Savage believes “school is becoming such a stressor for people,” as the expectation that students can maintain a balance of achieving good grades and participating in extracurriculars and other commitments continues to heighten. Oftentimes, students are focused on building a resume for college applications rather than centering their mental well-being.
“[Students] are putting a lot of pressure on themselves,” Savage continues. “And I think what a lot of kids struggle with is managing all of these things and managing to stay happy as well.”
With a growing number of mental health concerns throughout the country, Yatsevitch says that “it’s a messy process right now, because I think we’re still in the infancy of allowing people to come forward and take space. I think our mental health systems are growing in the demand for these things, but it takes a long time to catch up.”
While all of the panelists are in agreement that the issue of student mental health is at the forefront of the conversation, Jensen believes each panelist has a specific purpose: to bring their unique perspective.
For Bailey Barth-Malone (‘23), that viewpoint is focused on LGBTQ+ teen mental health and “being a voice for some of those people that don’t necessarily feel comfortable speaking up about issues that they face with their sexuality” and gender identity. After researching the effect of “othering” and unaccepting school environments on LGBTQ+ youths’ mental health in their Design Thinking Seminar class, Barth-Malone is “bringing some of these issues to the table, because I think without it, they’re not necessarily being discussed.”
“The truth is, we don’t always have an accepting environment. And because we don’t always have an accepting environment, that’s leading to a lot of mental health issues for LGBTQ+ teens,” Barth-Malone comments. By shedding light on LGBTQ+ students’ experiences, Barth-Malone will offer solutions that teachers can integrate into their daily teaching habits to foster a safer and more accepting environment for LGBTQ+ students. “It’s those tiny little things that take a couple of extra seconds of thought, but then it actually can create a huge difference—it’s kind of like a snowball effect for students.”
Yatsevitch agrees, saying, “in any given scenario, you can’t necessarily solve all of the problems that are going to come up, but you can learn how to care for yourself and care for others.” This process can begin by tackling small things, such as educators talking to their advisory about healthy stress-management skills, something that Yatsevitch has implemented in her own classroom. To her, it all boils down to validating what others have to say and practicing active listening skills, all in hopes of strengthening how we take care of ourselves and others.
Oyster River community members of all ages can find meaning and takeaways from the event, the panelists say. As for students, “it could be helpful to hear what other students have to say,” and learn from the variety of perspectives of the panelists, says Jensen. For the adults in the community, “you might think you know what kids think about something,” Jensen says, but adults might not actually know “until you really put yourself in a position to actively listen to what they’re thinking and feeling.”
– Grace Webb
Image courtesy of Canva