I ended my first week of finals my sophomore year on the side of the highway in my car, completely alone, and having a panic attack. I’ll never forget how it felt as my vision constricted, and I realized I definitely wasn’t “OK.” I had to muster all the energy I could to pull over, praying that I wasn’t missing anything in my darkening peripheral vision.
At that moment, I couldn’t define the reaction my body was having—hands shaking, vision cloudy, breaths ragged. I genuinely thought that I was having a heart attack, and it all seemed so sudden.
But I was wrong. I failed to see that I was packing on stress all week, ignoring any semblance of a sleep schedule, and continuing to overexert myself. I had never slowed down to consider what I was doing to myself.
On the side of the road, as I used the only breathing strategy I had learned for anxiety, I quickly realized it was time to get help. This had not been my first panic attack, but it had been my worst, and after seeing my life flash before my eyes, I was determined never to let it happen again.
Today, I’m about to celebrate my two-year anniversary with my therapist and two years with Work2BeWell, a student program dedicated to opening the conversations around student mental health and wellness—the program that opened my eyes to the massive miscommunications and misunderstandings between adults and students about teen mental health.
In therapy, I learned about the importance of being honest with myself and others and the power of speaking openly about mental health. Once I was able to accept my own mental health, I found it much more manageable. I’m really proud of the progress I’ve made, and it’s exhilarating to know how much more I can grow emotionally through therapy, mindfulness, and acceptance.
In speaking to my friends and family, I got to share my own experiences and learn about theirs. I saw how opening conversations creates a more meaningful and authentic bond with those you love, and it normalizes more difficult discussions surrounding mental health.
Through my own experience and from the experience of others, I have learned that there are two key ways to help all students maintain good mental health and seek help if they suffer from mental illness. These are making personal connections and working to end the stigma surrounding mental health issues.
Combating the Stigma
With Work2BeWell, I have spoken to and learned from students all around the country about mental health in their schools and among their friends, and about the stigma surrounding the issue in every school in America.
In hearing firsthand from students coast to coast, I have learned that it’s the stigmatization that makes mental health among students feel so debilitating. Feeling trapped and alone in one’s journey with mental health is, in my opinion, the most dangerous place for a student to be.
Mental health is not a topic easily brought up in conversation, and it is often a source of insecurity for many students. Too often, students feel isolated by their mental illness or feel that they can’t speak to their friends because the subject is “taboo.” I have heard from students who say this silence and isolation is the reason that students quietly bear their mental illnesses alone, often leading to despair, eating disorders, unmanageable levels of stress, and hundreds of other painful outcomes.
As long as student mental health is seen as a taboo subject and students do not feel comfortable enough to openly speak about their own mental health to family, friends, and school advisers, this cycle will continue.
The best and easiest way to help destigmatize mental health in schools is simply to talk about it. Not everyone has a mental illness, but everyone has to maintain their mental health and well-being. This begins when everyone agrees to start this dialogue to show that in your school, mental health of all kinds is accepted, acknowledged, and cared for.
Destigmatization in schools can be promoted through mental health spirit weeks or assemblies, programming by clubs, lessons specific to mental health, wellness centers developed in schools, or even through school or district policies or state legislation that promotes mental health awareness and acceptance in schools.
The most important part is that schools actively take steps toward normalizing mental health so that students are aware of their own well-being and can actively consider ways forward. By opening conversations around mental health, students like me will have the knowledge and awareness they need to take their own mental health into consideration.
Student leaders can encourage students to check in on their friends and their peers. COVID-19 only further isolated students, making mental health challenges all the more taxing. Advisers can work to normalize conversations around mental health both in and out of classes, making sure that students have at least one person in their lives they can reach out to.
For individual students, this could involve doing a mental health check-in with their peers, casually talking about skills learned in therapy, opening up about an experience with one’s own mental health, or ensuring that teachers are flexible about late assignments if students are struggling. By taking the first step, you pave the path of acceptance in your school. And though you might not ever learn who follows behind you, there will be those forever appreciative that you took that first step for them.
There is nothing more helpful than being open and accepting to those struggling. An ally makes the battle much easier—and just by being present, you can be more helpful than they know. So, I encourage students and teachers to be honest about their own mental health, because they can never know who is aware of the standard they have set.
Always try to be understanding and considerate, because not all personal battles are fought where you can see them. And know that while student mental health is vastly different from student to student, every person needs an ally in their fight.
Finally, I encourage everyone to consider their own relationship with mental health. I wish I hadn’t denied my well-being as long as I did, and I am determined to continuously work to make sure every student I know understands the validity of their feelings. Everyone should check in on themselves and take time to consider their well-being during stressful times. You have to care about yourself to care for those you love.
My goal is to ensure that no student ends up in a terrifying experience like the one I had. I know that if we keep fighting the stigma, there will be a time when connecting about mental health will be as easy as conversations about common ailments such as the flu or a cold.
Beyond that, be an ally, be a resource, and be a friend. Togetherness is the best and only way to fight teen isolation, and I know that together we will win this battle for ourselves and all of those we love.
Leina McLaughlin is a junior at Sherwood High School in Sherwood, OR. She sits on the Work2BeWell National Student Advisory Council. She also volunteers with Students for a Healthy Oregon.
Educators know that student mental illness is a topic long overlooked in schools, where the focus has primarily been on the performance of the brain and academics rather than emotional health.
However, mental health has become an even more critical issue during the pandemic, with experts reporting that different—and sometimes more severe—concerns have arisen related to isolation and a lack of social interaction. Beyond the expected issues that arise for young people, during this period students also have faced stress regarding missed learning or advancement to college, anxiety about the virus or its effect on family finances, and even online bullying, which some research suggests has increased 70 percent during the pandemic.
School and student leaders, however, also are more often addressing the issue in an effort to provide support and, perhaps even more importantly, reduce the stigma surrounding it.
Sara Nilles, a former executive director for the Oregon Association of Student Councils, now focuses on the issue through Work2BeWell (www.work2bewell.org), a nonprofit program sponsored by Providence Health Systems that works with students, educators, and parents to increase awareness about and provide resources for mental health issues.
She is an adviser to the group’s National Student Advisory Council, a team of 18 teens from throughout the country who, she says, “share a common passion to improve access and education around mental health and are empowered to activate and create change.” (Interested students can apply to participate on the council in May, and schools can seek status for pilot programs by emailing [email protected].)
“Students across Oregon and many other states have used Work2BeWell to not only empower themselves but their peers, too,” she says. “They have led conversations, taught lessons, started clubs, and created summits and assemblies in an effort to make talking about their mental health feel comfortable and safe.”
The Work2BeWell free curriculum, resources, and implementation tools offer ways for student leadership groups to develop schoolwide programs that can help students learn about mental health, openly discuss their problems, and tackle their concerns or find resources to help.
Here are some other ways student leaders can address the issue of mental health in their schools:
- Work with your school counselors who have knowledge about mental health issues and have access to a wide range of resources. Perhaps develop an event that addresses the issue involving an assembly, in-class presentations (which counselors are typically prepared for), or a fundraiser to support a worthy cause related to the issue.
- Hold a mental health fair with tables and presentations to address issues ranging from meditation and mindfulness to depression and anxiety. Consider all the resources in the school and community that might help students with issues that concern them, including body image and appearance, substance abuse, physical wellness, family dysfunction, and stress over future goals.
- Establish a mental health week during which each day focuses on a key issue related to mental health (Work2BeWell has many resources on its site for ideas).
- Invite a qualified expert for an assembly specifically focused on mental health issues related to young people. Ask them to address concerns and discuss how to talk about the issue openly. Then, establish small group or classroom discussions with staff and students on the topic. Experts say ending the stigma about mental health is an important step for young people.
- Devote efforts to educating adults to identify the issues. Counselors can help with information that can be provided to teachers, administrators, and parents so they can help students identify mental health challenges and find solutions.
- Ask teachers and administrators to consider talking to students in their classes in discussion groups or informally about mental health issues they have confronted. Include information about sports figures and celebrities who have been willing to be more open about their problems, which experts say is a powerful tool for reducing mental health stigma.
- Work to establish a hotline or other platform where students can report any concerns they have about other students or issues they may need help facing.
- Focus on building relationships among a diverse group of students in your school. Nilles says students report these relationships are too often lacking and could be the vehicle for better mental health and spotting problems students are having.
A national school survey from NASSP found that 73% of principals and 74% of students report they needed help with their mental health or emotional health last year.