By Guest Blogger Erin O’Malley, dean of student services at Bishop O’Connell High School, Arlington, Virginia
Listen to the Students
At Bishop O’Connell High School, our administration made the commitment to get back in the classroom and teach. We work on a rotating system, and this was my year. With another school year wrapping up, I have come to the end of teaching juniors and seniors Psychology—a very fulfilling and incredibly eye-opening experience for me.
While preparing the class and working on creative ways to teach, I thought for sure that the lesson on the central nervous system and mapping the brain with markers on Styrofoam zombie heads on Halloween would be a highlight. Or teaching about gustation and sampling a range of tastes from sour Skittles to beef jerky would be among their favorite lessons.
While those were each educational and engaging, the topic we seemed to spend the most time on, and the topic students had the most input on and personal affiliation with, was Mental Health. In fact, for their assigned final project of the school year—where students create and present a proposal for an Awareness Week of their choosing, determining events at school and ways to promote the topic—half of the class chose something related to mental health awareness. In addition, in my role as counselor supervisor, every day I witness numbers of students visiting their counselor for a host of academic, college, and career needs, including social and emotional needs ranging from non-critical to serious emergencies.
And, it is not just our current students. At our recent College Signing Day, where we had twenty alum come back and share their first year college experiences with our current seniors. Two in particular shared their stories on mental health struggles and the importance of seeking assistance on the college campus. Their message: Know where the counseling office is and get any additional help needed if you’re struggling.
How Our Students Spent Spring Break
The rise of conversations on mental health really rose to the surface in the wake of the powerful debut of the Netflix Series, 13 Reasons Why. Upon my students’ return from spring break, my planned-out unit on Personality took a backseat to the much-needed processing of the series. While many students at our school took vacations, worked, or spent time relaxing, a large number of students came back with their thoughts, opinions, concerns, or accolades on the series they just spent their entire break watching.
Between discussions by students, numbers of students seeking help with their mental health struggles, the outpouring of stories on social media on what presents as an almost epidemic of self-harm and suicide and now with the newest Netflix binge, some good questions came up for all of us about mental health and what we are doing for students. How are we talking about it? How are we preventing it? How are we responding? Maybe most importantly, let us ask ourselves; are we even comfortable with talking about it?
Navigating the Trickiness and the Importance of Talking about the Tough Stuff
- Do we want to spawn a contagion of every teenager thinking he or she and every other teenager have a mental illness? No
- Do we want to alienate our students with too much talk of mental health? No
- Do we want to raise awareness about mental health issues for children, remove the stigma, and demonstrate to students that they are not alone? Yes
- Do we need to teach students, parents, guardians, and teachers and staff the signs of suicidal ideation and depression and next steps to get help? Yes
- Do we want to be aware of the appropriate strategies in discussing topics of mental health, particularly suicide, with students because suicide can be contagious and kids can be impressionable? Yes
Every school is different, and every student is different; therefore, it is important to take the time and get support in finding appropriate ways to educate your particular school community.
Taking Action for Mental Health Awareness
I, too, spent spring break watching the Netflix series. One of our counselors and I almost simultaneously texted each other stating that we need to get ahead of this thinking it could quickly become a highly talked about and potentially impressionable show for teens. We decided as a leadership team at my school that I would send, in my role as Dean of Student Services, a note to all our parents and guardians, to create awareness of the series and the issues raised. In this note, without endorsing the series, I suggested that it would be better for parents to be watching and discussing the series with their student than to allow the student to watch it on their own.
We did not overly complicate the letter, but we did point out the graphic details of the show and that it hit on depression, drinking, relational aggression and bullying, and included graphic images and details of sexual assault and suicide. The responses to the letter were extremely positive, and we received appreciation for raising their awareness. I saw that as a very comforting response from our community and realized we can have these tough conversations and talk about mental health awareness issues in a constructive and beneficial way.
Right after the release and subsequent viewing of 13 Reasons Why by several of my peers and colleagues in the mental health and education fields, there was a flurry of social media discussions, which were helpful and assuring. It was great to see such a huge response to the series by professionals through advice columns, articles, guidelines, and talk shows (here’s just one from the American School Counselor’s Association).
It was also a great time for reflection on what I’ve learned from peers and professionals through social media, counseling and psychology articles, and presentations at professional conferences, and so I compiled a non-exhaustive list of what schools can do:
- Provide ongoing and up-to-date professional development for the student services professionals (counselors, nurses, support staff) and administration;
- Conduct Individual/group/classroom guidance and presentations for students on social, emotional, and mental health topics;
- Foster collaboration between health teachers, school counselors, school psychologists, and school nurses on mental health components in the curriculum;
- Schedule counselor meetings with athletic coaches and other student club sponsors to teach warning signs and what to do;
- Conduct faculty mental health training, such as Mental Health First Aid;
- Reach out to families, including presenting information at parent orientations, ongoing family coffees (or other meetings between administrators, counselors, and parents/guardians), and evening presentations on mental health topics;
- Create or tighten up protocols on self-harm, suicide attempts, or suicides/death of a student at school;
- Update suicide prevention plans and protocols;
- Ensure students are receiving emergency mental health evaluations when necessary and understand the school’s obligation for follow-up;
- Host a Mental Health Symposium/Conference once a year;
- Present grade-level appropriate lessons/material without fear of beginning the conversation too early.
Let’s keep talking about what we can add to the list. And let’s keeping listening to the students, listening to the discussions. We cannot wait anymore and only be responsive to events. We owe it to our students and families to get the education we need to talk about mental health and implement programs and protocols that are effective and appropriate for our particular communities.