Do Popsicles and Pop Music Help Kids With Mental Illness?

June 3, 2022

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Going through day-to-day life through the pandemic, my life wasn’t my only worry. Seeing my closest friend’s mental health deteriorate made mine become subsequently worse. Three got kicked out of their homes mid-pandemic, one started turning to abusing drugs, and another had a controlling parent who would take away the only working computer at home and turn off all internet. Their teacher wouldn’t make exceptions. The people in front of me were changing for the worse and it felt like the world was spiraling with me. My heart was in just as much agony as my mind. I felt like I couldn’t recognize my friends but somehow grades were still handled as the main issue. 

From what I heard at the time, most teachers were just as unprepared as students to handle these crises. The least of these students worries was school, but I knew that all they wanted was to pass. Failing meant another year stuck in a dangerous environment at home, or a screaming match with a parent over the report card. 

The school, of course, could really only do so much to help these complicated and delicate situations. You can have as many suicide awareness weeks and mental health awareness months you want, it won’t make the mental agony or an unstable household that some students face everyday go away. 

“I was very suicidal in early 2021, and the mountain of accumulating homework wasn’t helping,” says a student who chose to remain anonymous. “My psychologist and my psychiatrist both emailed my teachers asking for accommodations, and my academic counselor set up a student study team (SST).”

An SST is where all of a student’s teachers, parents, their counselor, and a vice-principal meet to go over introductions, the strengths of the student, the student’s concerns/challenges, intervention ideas, action items to address the concerns, and the next steps.

“In my experience the teachers all said nice things about me,” she relays, “but when we were at the step where teachers suggested accommodations, there was some tension between two teachers. One teacher was very stubborn and not wanting to help, going as far as to lie about me. The other was genuinely trying to help me and was defending me against the other teacher.”

So what happens in this situation when a student is relying on support that a teacher refuses to provide? Bethany Toy, our school’s licensed psychologist, gives insight. “I would say generally what happens if conversations between students and teachers aren’t productive it’s then handled at admin or district level so we don’t know exactly what steps are taken next.” 

That being said, some students disagree with how it’s handled. “The counselors need to be more assertive if a student is having an issue with a teacher.” Says another student who chose to remain anonymous. “They’re afraid of confrontation.”

Being in an environment where the parents and teachers have all of the authority, the student can be treated as lesser than, and it can be hard for students struggling with real issues to get all parts of the system to take them seriously. Especially in the pandemic, where school happened on a screen and the household in which you resided controlled your life completely, mental health became a very common topic. But despite this, some teachers still believed it was an excuse to just not do school. “One study said that 49% of adolescents had a degree of diagnosable anxiety during covid. It’s a lot of school refusal, panic attacks, crippling anxiety, tests, college, and anything else that you can imagine” says Ms. Toy. “The effects the lockdown had on students is far from over. Just because we are coming out of it physically doesn’t mean the mental trauma still doesn’t affect many on the daily.”

Senior Rayan Zouai, a student who is very familiar with the mental health team, says, “My counselor connected me to the school therapist, and although she was good it was difficult to really do anything. The most helpful thing she did for me was when she connected me to outside mental health services,” says senior Zouai. “I appreciate the focus on the mental health center, but the focus should be on connecting students to consistent help. That was the most useful thing to me. They know doctors and therapists that can be free or less expensive depending on your insurance.”

To many, the school’s response to mental health crises might look like music blasting positive poppy music in the month of may or suicide awareness week with enough popsicles and flyers for everyone. Many might share the question of “is this really helping kids with crippling mental health issues?” But, it may be helpful in a different way than you think. The Alecia Cara and sweets aren’t defeating someone’s problems, but instead the presence of our mental health team has become more known to students. Not just to the kids struggling, but to their concerned friends. “What I have seen as a positive impact is students coming in and reporting friends with problems,” says Toy. “I think getting the world out there about our program has been effective in letting kids know we’re here.”

Talia Harter, a Junior in ASB who helps organize such events happening during brunch, agrees on the issue. “Many people don’t know about the mental health resources the school provides. Our wellness team is doing great work to expand that knowledge but there is still a stigma around looking for mental health support. Especially as our new wellness center opens, I hope students will become more aware of options available for them.”

I myself can testify to the effectiveness of “getting the word out there.” Feeling like I had nowhere else to go, I went to the mental health corner to get help for my best friend. He was abusing drugs on and off campus, destroying his relationships, his health, and was overall becoming unrecognizable. I went there and begged the staff to help him in any way they could, as well as emphasized the need to treat his situation as very fragile and serious, fearing he’d be given some cold antipersonal protocol. To my surprise at the time, my friend accepted all of their help and got the support he needed. The underlying problem, his household, was something they did not have the ability to help, but helping take off the stress of other things was enough to get him on the right track. 

But the road to getting the help a student needs isn’t just about going to the mental health corner. Often, it starts with a conversation with a trusted teacher. 

Math teacher Mr. Cretien says, “Making accommodations to the course work to meet student needs is the nature of the job.” He continues, ”Successfully managing or treating these issues requires an incredible amount of communication, and that’s a really difficult task for a school as big as ours.” 

Ms. Hager, a sophomore honors English teacher, explains how teachers play a role in the system. “If the crisis poses an immediate danger to the student or another, I refer the student to an administrator so that they can get the help that they need,” she explains, making sure to choose her words wisely, ”Sometimes students wish that they could keep that information between the two of us, but I let them know that for their safety we have to, and the law requires me to get them the appropriate help. We never keep secrets when it’s a danger to a student.” 

Although many students struggling with personal issues may want just someone to talk to like a favorite teacher, it can be the teacher’s job to push you to the next level of help. Many kids may be scared by the idea of their confidentiality being a thin line, but the confidentiality rule is still controlled by the student’s consent. “The trick is to talk to the student about which info I can disclose in order to help without breaking confidentiality,” Ms. Toy explains, “There’s always a conversation with the student before about what they are comfortable with sharing. Maintaining confidentiality is really critical.”

But, no program can be perfect. “I remember when I was having a public breakdown on social media, my friend went to the counselors and they freaked out because they thought I was suicidal. They had been trying to contact me all day and when I finally called back, they were in a meeting,” says Rayan, laughing a little. 

With the new mental health center and student mental health crises on the rise since the pandemic, more access to mental health services will hopefully prevent the unimaginable from happening. 

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