Editorial: Mental health matters

School staff and students must take more proactive steps to ensure the mental well-being of students and disband the stigmas surrounding mental health.


Zoey Guo

Steps to promote and improve mental health should be taken by the ICCSD.

Any young lives lost is too many. Within a year, the ICCSD suffered losses of students, including due to suicide. The grief and hurt caused by these events are impossible to forget and necessitate change. Informing students of available resources and setting up spaces to talk for one day is not enough. The district, school staff and students need to take more proactive measures to ensure the mental well-being of students and disband mental health stigmas.

The culture around mental health in schools is filled with institutional, public and internal stigmas. In a place where students are encouraged to “achieve excellence,” there is a distinct built-in pressure to continue to push yourself, regardless of your well-being. When students struggle, they should not feel obligated to “power through.” Some teachers add to this culture by leading students to prioritize assignments over their self-care, rewarding unhealthy academic habits. It is more important for students to stay alive than finish their homework.

Another detrimental part of the stigmas surrounding mental health issues is who are perceived to have them. Even if a person appears healthy on the outside, they can be fighting their own battles on the inside. The stigmas are especially harmful to men. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, men took their own life 3.88 times more than women in 2020. Men are hurt by traditional gender roles — how are men supposed to feel comfortable speaking up and seeking help when they are struggling if they are constantly supposed to appear “strong” and “dominant”? Research also suggests that men are less likely to recognize symptoms of mental illness in themselves and accept help.

The ICCSD Social-Emotional Learning attempts to address ignorance. However, the SEL lessons during AFT are not functioning as intended, because there is a disconnect between students and teachers, with many students feeling forced to participate. Students who do not want to participate joke around and brush off the lessons, rendering them ineffective. This problem is amplified because teachers are not licensed mental health professionals and often want to get through the lesson. Teachers already have enough on their plates — trying to coordinate and get kids involved in another kind of lesson only adds extra pressure. The SEL environment is not friendly or inviting enough for students, as many are with unfamiliar classmates. This takes away the safety that students should feel when trying to be genuinely vulnerable and heard.

While the importance of mental health should be taught and normalized from a young age, we, as a community, must do our best to break down stigmas now. A noteworthy aspect of this is using appropriate terminology to normalize discussing mental health and remove negative connotations. Words truly matter.

As a student body, it is paramount to look out for each other by checking in with people, even if you do not know them well, and helping them find resources and support. It is also crucial to encourage others and remind them to take breaks to prioritize well-being. Maintaining mental health should come before grades and pushing yourself too far. However, the responsibility of maintaining peers’ mental health should not fall solely on the students. Teachers and administration should be understanding of students’ mental struggles and create a community that is open and honest about students’ well-being — at all times. Teachers must follow through with administrative actions, like the SEL lessons and community-building exercises, for them to be effective, and they must be taught with the same seriousness as their lesson plans.

Instead of the current SEL format, consistently having optional circles for students would help build community and create an atmosphere where students truly feel safe and comfortable expressing their emotions. The circles should be based on sharing and listening rather than lecturing, like SEL. While optional circles were held March 24, more circles are needed for topics other than grief. Only 11 students attended these circles, likely because of the lack of accessibility. For many people, these circles were only communicated to them through emails and it was hard for students to justify missing class. These community-building efforts should be accessible to everyone during school hours and gradually increased. West High administration has also proposed having a NESTT as a space for students to navigate their emotions and calm down, an initiative requiring district staffing and funding. Having a NESTT is an important resource the district needs to support. To have effective, proactive steps that help students who are struggling, we must form a supportive community where everyone works to destigmatize mental health.