Minding mental health

Walker-Sean: ‘You can get through this. You are not alone. We do care.’

Minding mental health

Artwork by Reyna Yang

Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States and nearly 90 percent of Americans struggling with suicidal thoughts have an underlying mental health issue. September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, and with an attempt to increase awareness of suicide prevention, mental health awareness is also raised.

Mental health encompasses psychological and emotional well-being, affecting one’s thoughts and actions. The prevalence of mental health struggles are shown through the fact that 20 percent of all teens between the ages of 13 and 18 have or will have a serious mental illness.

“More and more research is indicating that we don’t just catch depression or get schizophrenia but it’s a genetic disposition that you have that can be treated,” school counselor Randall McLelland said. “Certain environmental factors can cause it to manifest earlier or in a different way, but it’s just as you would get treatment for cancer, why wouldn’t you get treatment for a mental illness?”

David Deutsch, the Executive Director from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) in Ventura County, believes that there are more young people struggling with mental health issues now than there have ever been. Oak Park High School students concur. Three students agreed to talk about this issue. The Talon chose to keep them anonymous to protect their identities.

“I think [mental health] is important because it’s something you can’t really see. If someone has a physical disability, you can usually tell,” anonymous student one said. “But, if someone has a mental illness, you don’t know what they’re going through. It’s important to be educated so we can understand our peers better.”

School psychologist Stephanie Walker-Sean has worked in her field since 2001 and has “seen a significant increase in mental health issues.” In fact, a study published in 2014 by the American Academy of Pediatrics stated that childhood disability cases related to a neurodevelopmental or mental health condition rose by 20.9 percent between 2001 and 2011.

“So much in our world changed,” Walker-Sean said. “This is a pattern that we’re seeing and hearing really across the country. We’re seeing a significant uptake in issues of anxiety and depression, suicide ideation, self-injurious behaviors.”

Principal Kevin Buchanan believes that mental health struggles can have a monumental impact on students’ lives.

“It can just take you out of your daily dreams and goals. It sidelines you. Our school is in a category of schools that values high academic, personal, athletic and civic achievement, whatever it is,” Buchanan said.

According to Walker-Sean, with an increase of mental health issues in students, comes more of a need for people to focus in on mental health awareness.

“There are lives on the line. Because teenagers’ brains are developing, things seem very black and white. If we can increase the mental health awareness component, help people feel connected [and] see [they’re] not alone and for those individuals who are not experiencing those troubles to be able to learn how to support, [then] this too shall pass,” Walker-Sean said.

On an international level, the World Health Organization (WHO) is working alongside foreign governments, experts and partners in order to improve access to high quality mental health treatment and care for numerous mental illnesses in many parts of the world.

“Key messages and actions WHO is promoting are as follows: monitoring and improving human rights conditions in mental health facilities, develop mental health laws which respect human rights, promote adequate health care, stop social exclusion, provide appropriate treatment, care and support, and advocate for better recognition and action for mental health in development agendas and programmes,” WHO wrote.
On a national level, one of the main goals of NAMI, according to Deutsch, is to share an understandable knowledge about mental illness to high schoolers.
“We are focused very much on the principles of education, support and advocacy and one of our overarching goals is to erase the stigma associated with mental illness in our society,” Deutsch said. “We would like people to speak openly about mental illness just like they would about diabetes, cancer or heart disease.”

A stigma is the social disapproval of a characteristic of a person and a belief that an individual or group has less worth than those in the norm. A natural response to stigma is shame and shame-based defensive anger.

Mental health stigmas, many times, impact how teenagers go about dealing with their issues, typically in a negative manner. According to McLelland, it causes people not to seek help, to stay in the shadows and deal with it on their own.

“I think the stigmas — wherever they come from, whether it’s from your own families, culture, religions — contributes to those people, unfortunately, getting worse, rather than getting the help that they need,” McLelland said.

However, McLelland said stigmas are gradually lessening in communities.

“One of the reasons why the stigma is declining over time is because more and more people are acknowledging that mental illness is not a personal character flaw,” McLelland said.

Senior and co-president of Mental Health Awareness Club Austin Randall wrote to the Talon that he started this club to raise awareness on mental health issues that aren’t normally talked about in society, provide resources to anyone who needs it and help members learn how to better support people struggling with their mental health. Senior and co-president of Mental Health Awareness Club Elika Parab added to this.

“Mental illness is still greatly stigmatized in today’s world, largely because it’s invisible. Many people make the misguided assumption that struggling is a choice, [so] suffering from mental illness is not taken seriously,” Parab wrote to the Talon.

Some students observe unhealthy expressions of stigmas within social situations.

“Stigma is still prevalent through the form of humor. Often times, we’ve heard people say they want to kill themselves or want to die in response to something minor, like a bad test grade. By engaging in this kind of humor, symptoms related to poor mental health are being normalized,” Parab wrote.

Artwork by Reyna Yang

School counselors Julie Ross and Janet Svoboda, believe that the high school can work to end mental illness stigmas.

Deutsch said that mental illness affects one in four adults in our society and one in five children, yet because of the stigma, people are often not as aware of how prevalent it is.

“Mental health issues need to be addressed at school to help reduce stigma. When we reduce stigma, then reaching out for help is not so difficult,” Svoboda said.

According to MentalHealth.gov, one in 25 Americans live with a serious mental illness.

“I suffered from severe anxiety and depression as well as an eating disorder through middle school and the beginning of high school. I felt extremely scared and alone, and I didn’t have anyone in my life that I truly trusted to ask for help, so I let myself suffer,” anonymous student two wrote.

McLelland shared his family’s experience with mental health struggles.

“I had a cousin that was schizophrenic and had a few other issues. He was hospitalized and was in a mental hospital for 20 years. We didn’t want to talk about those kind of things,” McLelland said. “We’ve come a long way now where even people that have a full-on diagnosis, like my cousin, could actually be full-functioning members of society with treatment, medication, etc. It’s one of the reasons I’m in this job.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one out of seven children in the United States, ages two to eight years old, have a diagnosed mental, behavioral or developmental disorder.

“When I was in third grade I discovered I had ADHD and during a [recent] evaluation they said I had a medium to severe case of depression and an extreme case of ADHD,” anonymous source three said. “Later in the beginning of ninth grade, I started having auditory hallucinations – voices in my head.”

There are resources on campuses such as peer counselors, school counselors, school psychologists and other friends or teachers that can help students deal with mental health issues in the best ways that they can.

However, about 50 percent of individuals with severe psychiatric disorders are receiving no treatment. Because adolescent behavior may be difficult to analyze, it may be a struggle to diagnose.

“I think if I had gotten help earlier, I would not have taken as long to recover. I was treated in a clinic for a little bit, attended talk therapy sessions and was given medication,” anonymous student two wrote.

On an international level, Deutsch believes that mental health awareness is increasingly prevalent for younger age groups.

“Since we’ve known about mental illness, I think we live in a world that’s much more complex than 50 years ago and I think there’s a lot more pressure on young people. That’s a reason to make them aware of the importance of self-care,” Deutsch said. “I think those things can contribute to anxiety disorders, depressive disorders, things like that.”

According to staff and students, education centered around mental health issues is crucial to the academics taught to OPHS students.

“If students feel their self-worth is limited to how well they perform, they tend to feel undervalued for who they are and lose their sense of self. No one likes to feel accepted only when they do well which can cause someone to feel devalued,” Ross said.

The integration of technology into our everyday lives also plays a role in lack of human connection with regards to mental well-being.

“We’re so hyper-focused on having dopamine released from scrolling, instead of having a face to face conversation and being there emotionally. How much more meaningful is a conversation?” Walker-Sean said. “The connections that kids are having are less genuine and less empathic.”

According to Mental Health America, 56 percent of American adults did not receive treatment for their diagnosed mental illness.

“Mental health is not prioritized because tools that measure and rank high schools across America do not evaluate student menal health. However, in the counseling office, we realize the connection between academic and mental health. We collaborate with teachers, parents, psychologists and our school psychologist to do whatever we can to help students,” Ross wrote.

Deutsch believes that talking about mental illness openly, having it as part of the curriculum and by educating students about its reality is crucial.

“It’s unique and it is an illness just like any other illness and it should be treated as such. It’s nobody’s fault that they have mental health [illnesses],” Deutsch said.

While it may be difficult to see mental health issues day-by-day, there are warning signs and symptoms, like one may see with other diseases. In addition, students can aid in ending the stigma. Oak Park High School advocates for a “see something, say something” environment that encourages students to recognize and reach out to other students in need.

Deutsch said that he thinks that teens are much more aware now than they used to be, but that there is still a long way to go.

“If you know somebody that has a mental illness treat them like a person. I mean they’re no different from you, they just have something they have to deal with,” anonymous student three said.

According to the Mental Health Foundation, emotional, social and practical support can have the power to impact the lives of people who struggle with mental health.

“Kindness goes a long way. You never know what someone is going through, and you never know how you can impact someone by the way you treat them,” anonymous student two wrote. “Be nice, because you can truly change someone’s life that way.”



How to contact an advanced peer counselor

Take advantage of Oak Park High School’s advanced peer counselors. Here’s how:

Identify and accept that you need help.
The first step to getting help is understanding that you need help. Accepting that you need assistance in identifying the root of emotional issues is always the first step. You are human.

Figure out what you need help with.
Try to grasp what exactly the issue is. What is your struggle? — Try to name it. This will aid in the process of approaching a person skilled in this domain, i.e. a school counselor, therapist, psychologist or advanced peer counselor.

Go to the office and see your counselor.
Set up a time to speak with your counselor about your needs and issues. From there, decide how you want to continue to get the help that you need, which could mean scheduling regular appointments with peer counselors, or reaching out to them electronically through phone calls or texts.

Request to be paired with an advanced peer counselor.
Your school counselor will match you up with a student from the Advanced Peer Counseling program. The criteria school counselors Janet Svoboda and Julie Ross consider when matching up students include “gender, similar energy level, interests/hobbies, grade level, similar life struggles, personality, and experience.”

“Sometimes it is nice to talk to another teen because they understand first-hand what it is like to be [a] teen where sometimes adults don’t seem to get it,” Ross wrote.

Meet with your Advanced Peer Counselor
Depending on availability, a meeting can be at any time of the school day or after school. You will most likely exchange contact information and get to know each other. You will meet every once in a while at school or speak virtually regarding whatever issue needs addressing.


Why trust an advanced peer counselor with your problems?

Advanced peer counselors are selected through an application process and are fairly skilled (at a non-professional level) in discussing these matters. They are chosen because they care. They also comply with a confidentiality contract and cannot discuss meetings unless someone is hurting themselves, hurting someone else or knows of somebody hurting someone else, in which case they must get someone of higher authority involved.

If you or one of your friends are struggling, there are always professionals and hotlines to turn to.

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