Lance Laker admits he was a very anxious high-schooler.
“Anxiety is real, it’s very normal, but it is important to address it in the right way,” said the Thornapple High School resource room teacher.
Laker’s admission to students came during the first of a series of assemblies called “Making it Right to be Real,” a program that builds off the “Making it Cool to be Kind” initiative currently active at the high school.
Hidden Pain: Bringing Youth Mental Health out of the Shadows is a continuing series of School News Network
Every month, an assembly with a focus on a different area of mental health will be held for each high school grade level, culminating in a school-wide assembly. Assembly topics were determined by a panel of high school teachers, science teacher and football coach Jeff Dock, and school counselors Ross Lambitz, Nancy Iveson and Jamie Nelson.
February’s assembly will focus on depression and difficult circumstances students face.
“We hope these will help students realize that they are not alone, it’s OK to be real, and we are stronger together,” said Tony Petersen, high school principal. “There are a lot of mental health issues that students are struggling with, like anxiety and depression, and we hope that this program will help students recognize that we all go through struggles, but we do not have to face them alone.”
All Shapes and Sizes
The first assembly told the story of Welles Remy Crowther, an American equities trader and volunteer firefighter who saved at least a dozen people during the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City, during which he lost his own life.
Following the story of Crowther, known as “the man in the red bandana,” every student in the audience received a piece of red cloth.
“This is a reminder that we are all cut from the same cloth, and that we are all in this together,” Laker said. “I’m hoping that you’ll put it on your key ring or on your backpack as a visual reminder that you’re not in this alone.”
‘Anxiety comes in a lot of different shapes and sizes.’ — student Keeley Datterfield
Having both a visual and vocal reminder of support struck freshman Keeley Datterfield as a particularly good idea.
“Anxiety comes in a lot of different shapes and sizes,” Keeley said. “It’s not possible to know what everyone is going through or what assembly, song, video or speech is going to help someone.”
High school social worker Megan Roon also touched on the importance of taking moments to disconnect from sources of stress.
For freshman McKenzie Cooper, disconnecting can be a bit of a challenge, she said.
“It’s hard to shut off work mode sometimes; we definitely have a lot on our plates with exams and assignments and clubs,” McKenzie said. “Mental health isn’t something that people like to talk about. It’s kept kind of quiet.”
Coping mechanisms for students will be posted around the school and students are encouraged to find an outlet that helps them feel in control while in and out of school, Roon said.
“It’s normal to feel overwhelmed sometimes, but if your anxiety is so intense that you can’t sleep, eat or do your work, that may be a sign that you need to come talk to someone,” she told students. “And that’s what we’re there for.”
As someone who understands first-hand the stress students feel, Keeley thinks more efforts like the assembly series should be made, even outside the community.
“For some people an assembly isn’t going to work and it isn’t going to be enough, but maybe they can learn about some of the resources out there or the atmosphere around them can change because of something like this,” she said. “I think it’s a great idea.”
Words in Motion
Starting this month, the high school will have a table in the main hallway called “I have time,” where teachers will volunteer to give students a chance to talk about challenges they are facing.
“It’s about more than just saying that we have the time,” Laker said. “We’re going to make that true and show that.”
Freshman Morgan McCrumb thinks the school’s efforts to create ways to hear about mental health “is good for people who don’t want to outright announce the issues that they are having.
“Hopefully the people who need to realize someone is there for them are realizing that they are being heard.”