May is Mental Health Awareness Month
By Community Relations Intern: Tristan Johanson (North Thurston ℅ 2020)
"Mental health needs to be recognized and gain awareness. Mental disorders kill inside. Everyday I either want to be better or just give up, but I keep fighting the war in my head." -Bell, North Thurston High School
There are so many definitions to the term mental health. You have to account for the countless aspects of it, what are the factors that can cause mental illness, and all of the reactions people have to the very mention of mental health issues. Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices. And sometimes, often due to factors outside our control, we struggle.
According to the Washington State Healthy Youth Survey, one in four students in North Thurston Public Schools have seriously considered attempting suicide in the last year. Nationwide, 1 in 5 teens and young adults live with a mental health condition. Mental illness is not always visible, but it can be helped when we bring attention to it and talk about it.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month and the district is embracing this time as an opportunity to share resources with parents, staff and community. Last fall the School Board hosted a Community Conversation around this topic and determined that the district needed to develop a communication strategy around community mental health resources and help remove the social stigma associated with it. You may have seen teal and purple posters around schools detailing just how major mental health is in our area and emphasize that they are “not alone.” According to several counselors, some students have said the posters inspired them to ask for help.
The intention for this month is to help students understand more about mental health, how to access help, and encourage those who may suffer from depression, anxiety or suicidal thoughts that they are not alone.
“In NTPS, we believe it is important to treat both mental and physical health with the same attention” said Supt. Dr. Debra Clemens. “When a child has an accident at school that results in an injury, we provide support. When children are feeling sad, we want them to talk about it with a trusted adult.
Defining Mental Health
In interviewing students for this article, the different interpretations to the question “what does mental health mean to you” were quite varied. Often people use the terms mental health and mental illness interchangeably, when in reality they are very different. Here were a few examples:
"Mental health is your state of mind."
"It is how well you are able to process your thoughts and actions."
"Mental illness is a chemical imbalance in your brain"
"It can make it difficult to express all your thoughts to your peers."
"Mental health is all aspects of your health. It is what allows you to function or it could be what prevents you from living your life."
Every person has their own unique story, so every person may also have their own definition. One thing is for sure; every person I spoke with had some experience with a mental health issue. Note: Some students spoke to us on the grounds of remaining anonymous.
The Stress of Being a Student
A fellow student and I sat down and discussed this particular subject and came to the conclusion that anxiety and stress amongst students today have become the new normal.
"Depression is part of daily conversation amongst us,” they said. “Anxiety is so widespread and I think it's because of the constant pressure that is put on us to grow up. When you walk into school, one of the first things you will hear is 'I want to die'. The majority of the kids who say that don't legitimately want to die, they just want the constant stress and pressure of being a kid these days to go away."
As a student, you are constantly being told that your actions in school make or break your entire future. This is a lot of pressure to place on kids who are only just discovering who they are. The thing every student should be told when they go into school is that you don't have to have everything figured out when you walk out of those doors. You don’t have to have a foolproof plan in order to enter the ‘real world’ because thinking you do can cause a great deal of unnecessary stress.
Student Voice: Stories from Our Schools
"I have dealt with severe anxiety and depression since the fifth grade. After a time, I became apathetic, I had absolutely no fun doing what I loved, I absolutely hated everything about myself, and I felt I had no friends (even though I did have friends). I had a really rough time seeing the truth. I began to feel absolutely zero emotion. I wanted to feel something, whether that was sadness, happiness or something else. That is when I decided if I couldn't feel anything else, I could feel pain. I then got into a messy relationship, or at least, as much of a relationship as you can have in seventh grade. The night she ended things, I decided to commit suicide. I sent notes to my best friends and, luckily, my best friend at the time called the police. The officers got to me just before I jumped. I got help that night. Ever since, even to this day as a twelfth grader, I wake up every morning not knowing how hard I will be hit that day. Every day I struggle with it a little bit, and some days are worse than others. Depression is much harder than people think. It is not a choice to be so unhappy, it is a choice to press on, but not always a choice to be happy." --Erik, Timberline High School
The more we shed light on ways to speak out about our issues, the more people are willing to come forward, and the more we are discovering how difficult the fight is.
How We Cope
No one thing will help everyone in their struggles, but there were a select few who came forward and shared with me their ways of coping with their illnesses and anxieties.
"Both of my parents have pretty serious mental health issues,” said one student. “It motivates me to take good care of myself by getting enough sleep, exercising, eating healthy(ish), and setting healthy boundaries in all my relationships. I know that lifestyle is only part of the battle, but it’s the part I can control." Mental health intertwines with all aspects of life. If you are not physically healthy, it can become difficult to be mentally healthy and vice versa. Staying physically healthy can help to combat with some mental illnesses.”
"Being one who has suffered from depression and self-loathing, I’ve grown to know that there’s always another way. There’s always someone willing to listen, willing to help, and willing to seek a better path for you. Mental health is something every teen should take seriously! Yes, getting good grades is important, but so is getting enough sleep, eating enough food, and loving yourself. Seeking help is scary, but everyone should know that there are wonderful people who are more than willing to spend a couple hours, days maybe even months, to help you every step of the way. I was one of the lucky ones. Suicidal thought clouded my judgement, made me distant, made me hate the things I used to love. Because of the people I have in my life, I’m still alive and I know I'm not alone,” -- Ilo, North Thurston High School.
Remember, reach for help outside! School counselors are trained to listen and help get you resources. Or talk to a friend, trusted adult or call the Crisis Clinic at 360-586-2777 (or text HELLO to 7741741 to be connected to a trained crisis counselor.
No matter how difficult times get, no matter how lost and alone you may feel, there are people out there to listen and help. Never give up hope and never stop fighting. You are not alone!