Every single GDS student knows a peer struggling with their mental health, whether or not they are aware of it. Although mental illnesses do not always have obvious physical manifestations, mental health issues can affect people in a variety of seen—or invisible–ways. Still, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, at least one in five high school students around the country battle with a mental health illness—and GDS students are no exception. While recent student-driven actions have begun to shed light on mental health issues in our community, the school itself needs to step up and meet its students halfway.
The importance of student-driven conversations around mental health is undeniable; senior Leila Orszag, a head of GDS’s new mental health awareness and education club, explained that “students are more aware of what’s going on in the community, so students know what the most important problems are.” Students are often most receptive when engaged in dialogues with their peers, instead of being “talked at” by adults in the building. However, as junior Shonali Palacios pointed out, it can often be “dangerous” to let the responsibility of talking about mental health fall solely on students who do not necessarily have expertise on the matter and can sometimes unintentionally be insensitive. For this reason, it is imperative that the efforts of students and teachers be combined in order to have productive conversations and actions about mental illness.
One of the most pressing issues at GDS is a lack of education around mental health issues. While GDS plans to hire a Health and Wellness educator to redevelop the ninth and tenth grade health curricula, there is currently no mention of mental health in the course. Palacios is supportive of hiring the new Health and Wellness educator, and said that “today, to have [several] students with essentially no mental health education is… unforgivable.” Guidance Counselor Amy Killy also expressed a desire to fill the new position, saying “my role is often analogous to working in the Emergency Room, but we need somebody doing preventative care.” Killy assured that “we will only hire somebody as the new Health and Wellness coordinator who will be able to develop the mental health component of the new curriculum.” While it is important that this position is filled thoughtfully, and that the new curriculum carefully is developed, GDS cannot afford to waste time when it comes to mental health education.
Ideally, a new mental health curriculum would educate students not only about their own mental health, but also how to help their peers who deal with mental illnesses. “If we integrated mental health into the health and wellness curriculum,” Orszag explained, “students would be more aware of what constitutes mental health, and would be better able to help their friends who struggle with mental illness.” Close relationships and daily interactions put students—rather than adults—in the best position to recognize early stages of mental illnesses in their friends. Still, most GDS students cannot name the warning signs of depression, and would not know how to best approach a friend who they think might be experiencing a mental health issue. Well-intentioned interactions with teenagers with mental illnesses can often unintentionally trigger precarious reactions. For this reason, GDS needs to prepare students to not only deal with mental illness as an abstract concept, but also to understand its practical implications and colossal effects on students’ day-to-day lives.
While education might be the most pronounced issue with GDS’s current mental health system, the lack of support some GDS students of color often feel from the school regarding their mental health issues is equally problematic. Palacios explained that “it’s not necessarily GDS’s fault, but there is this societ[al] perception that people of color don’t suffer from mental illness or, when they do, that the best thing for them is just to repress it or push it down.” If general dialogues about mental health are few and far between at GDS, then conversations about mental illness in communities of color are nearly impossible to find. “Affinity groups are a start,” Palacios said, but felt that the Open Space she attended about mental health in communities of color was more productive, though “uncomfortable and even painful at times.” The biggest issue Palacios identified was that the treatment of mental health issues of students of color “tend[s] to fall on faculty of color.” This phenomenon is a hard needle to thread, because as Palacios noted, “it’s not fair to burden faculty members just because they happen to be faculty members of color, but the reality is that sometimes faculty members of color are the only people you feel like you can talk to.” While this complex matter deserves the attention of the highest level of the GDS administration, Palacios concluded that “recognition is certainly a start.”
While it is crucial that GDS promptly institutes fundamental adaptations to the way it handles mental health, smaller, yet still impactful, steps can be taken immediately. “The most important thing that the school needs to do that they’re not doing right now is make clear what resources are available for students both inside and outside of the school,” Orszag said. Putting up posters in the hallways and bathrooms detailing emergency hotlines, lists of GDS resources, or symptoms of common mental illnesses can be a first step to informing the student body about the basics of mental health care. Making sure students have an adequate environment in which to cope with and reflect on tragedies such as the suicides in Montgomery County Public Schools earlier this year can go a long way towards a student’s well-being. Ultimately, GDS needs to take both minor and major actions to reform and strengthen its approach to mental health.
By Shira Minsk ’19