Mental health of students is a global problem. But on a smaller scale–no two students in your school are the same–we all deal with different things in our lives, shaped by our individual communities and circumstances. However, mental wellbeing is a huge concern for all of us. Some estimates say over 130,000 young people throughout the state of Kentucky deal with anxiety and depression. A report from the Kentucky Student Voice Team said that “Throughout the pandemic, students’ mental health needs impacted their well-being and their schooling,” and mental well-being impacts all facets of a student’s life, in school and outside it. Many students come to school with difficult mental or physical challenges; having helpful mental health services in schools allows the whole school experience to be a better environment for kids, whether they are immediately navigating mental health challenges or not. Supporting students’ mental health is critical, and means better outcomes all around.
Recently, The Department of Health and Human Services gifted more than $2 million dollars to two Kentucky organizations in order to fund mental health support in schools–and it is still not enough. Personally, as an 8th grade student myself, I see no improvement in schools around me. Though mental health is a hot topic, everything appears to be the same.
In my experience, mental health does get talked about in my school, but not nearly as much as I feel like it should. Mental health is usually only discussed when teachers prioritize it. In my case, the only adult that I hear bring it up is my English teacher, who is very passionate about this topic, and wants it to be talked about as much as students like me do. She and I know that the funding that has been given to the state of Kentucky is an important step, but alone, doesn’t feel like enough to place the necessary spotlight on students' mental health.
In my school, we have social emotional learning, or SEL classes, but the time we are given for this learning is very short–the classes are only provided for 30 minutes every other Friday at the end of the day, when students, myself included, have turned their attention to going home and doing whatever they want with their weekend. Furthermore, it is clear that the SEL lessons are taught not based on the needs and interests of the teacher and students, but from what the predetermined SEL curriculum lays out, which makes the whole lesson feel boring and unhelpful for real world situations.
Senator Mitch McConnell stated that the source of the $2.3 million dollar grant, the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, “increases school safety, helps troubled kids and protects Kentucky’s teachers and students.” This vague statement isn’t enough, especially when we are left without any clarification on where and how the money will be used.
As someone who struggles with being able to work in school because, at times, I have difficulty facing surroundings that feel too distracting and overwhelming, I feel that mental health support and policies in schools should be something that is not decided by the adults, but guided by the students. Students know their mental health needs best, and should have the resources and support to handle it. We deserve to have ways to get adult support when we need and choose it.
Not every student feels comfortable talking to an in-school adult about their problems–I know this because I have experienced this feeling. Trusting and giving resources to students allows them to find and form the support systems they are comfortable with, which allows them to show what they’re truly feeling. This is key, because mental health issues aren't always easy to detect and see, especially for adults in my school.
Schools need to focus not just on the effects of mental health issues, but also the causes, so they can address them before bad things happen. Personally, I think we should still have guided specialists in schools, so students have the chance to talk to a trained adult.
Other students also have suggestions. In the Kentucky Student Voice Team's Coping with COVID report, researchers made recommendations to prioritize student mental health, including adding mental health days, having mental health check-ins with students, and creating time for mindfulness or relaxation in school. In January 2023, the Commissioner's Student Advisory Council met with Kentucky Education Commissioner Jason Glass, according to the Courier Journal. Students suggested providing mental health support, like counseling, after a school security issue as a recommendation.
School culture needs to shift, so that students feel comfortable opening up to teachers and specialists about their ongoing mental health challenges and well-being, so that mental health issues aren’t just addressed when they reach their worst. Overall, mental health is a central part of school life, which means students should be leading advocacy and solutions on mental health in schools.