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Making mental health awareness part of school culture

Kenowa Hills – The green decorations at Zinser Elementary were not just a month-long St. Patrick’s Day celebration.

Staff and students went all out in February and March in support of the Paint Kenowa Green initiative, a districtwide effort to raise awareness and end stigma around mental illness.

Principal Ross Willick, nurse Courtney Ellens and paraprofessionals Ashley Anderson and Tara Follett collaborated to educate students on mental health, and challenged staff and students to promote wellness for themselves and the community. Guidance came from Brooke Davis, Zinser’s Diversity, Equity and Mental Health Services director, formerly the school’s social worker.

The process of “painting” the school green began with posters, decorations and ribbons and a schoolwide door decoration contest. Anderson said it was interesting to watch students notice their changing surroundings, and that it sparked questions. 

Students chose Mrs. Wright’s classroom door as the winner (courtesy)

“We’re providing teachers with the information and support they need to feel comfortable answering questions and passing the mental health resources to students,” she said. “Some teachers even came to me looking for more information for themselves and to share with their class.” 

Follett produced a weekly YouTube series, “You Matter,” to share with classrooms and the community. Each video features a familiar Zinser face or community member sharing their mental health experiences and expertise. 

Willick spoke of managing his own mental health as a kid and into adulthood, and why he thinks spreading mental health awareness is so important. 

In her video, Ellens discussed ways students can improve their mood through sleep, exercise and nutrition.

Follett explained that transitioning into March gave the chance to combine their efforts with March is Reading Month.

“We’ve had our superintendent and an officer from the Walker Police Department record videos of (themselves) reading stories, and then we play them for students during class,” she said. 

Anderson said students began to connect all the green around the school with the initiative. “One kindergartner said to me ‘I know there is green in the school because of mental health.’”

Creating Conversation 

The team also put together a Google Slide presentation to provide tools to help teach parents and members of the community to talk with their students about mental health. 

Ellens said pushing awareness out to the community was one of their main goals. 

“We printed coloring sheets with ribbons on them for the students and staff to color, along with actual green ribbons for students to give out in the rest of the community,” Ellens said. 

Zinser Elementary students practiced giving and receiving compliments and support via sticky notes in the hallway (courtesy)

Normalizing, Destigmatizing

Since kicking off the initiative, “I’ve seen a huge change,” Ellens said. “Kids are way more open to talking about their feelings with me and with each other.” 

The team spoke about a second-grade student who struggles with mental health. During their classroom’s “good news” time, the student shared that they had started to see a therapist.

Zinser is also taking strides to support teachers and create a work environment that supports physical and mental health. 

“Something simple I did this year was relaxing the dress codes for staff, to make it one less thing they have to worry about every day,” Willick said. “As a district, we try not to breathe down the necks of teachers in classrooms, give them their space and check in every so often to ask how they’re doing and what they need from us.” 

Zinser staff members also have learned to utilize the mental health resources at home. 

Lunchroom staff at Zinser Elementary participated in the door decorating contest with a food-inspired bulletin board

“Relatability is comforting, and I see that even with my own kids,” Follett said. “We go over our high and low points of the day, and I’m learning to be more intentional with my parenting.”

“My oldest two kids are in middle school, and hearing them talk about their friend’s struggles I see them being able to talk more about their own mental health and don’t feel like they’re weird.” 

Anderson said she hopes Zinser students and staff will continue using the tools given to them through the initiative.

“Anxiety takes on different forms and the causes of stress and anxiety will always be changing, but I hope our students are learning coping and stress management skills while they’re young,” she said. “I didn’t learn stress management techniques until I was in a class in college.” 

Zinser is planning to continue the efforts via a mental health newsletter for families, and by encouraging families to reach out to the school for guidance, to ask questions and get connected with mental health resources if their child is in need.

“The mental health conversation doesn’t end at the end of Paint Zinser Green,” Anderson said. “We want to make awareness and destigmatizing part of our culture at school.”

Zinser Elementary is supporting the Paint Kenowa Green initiative, a districtwide effort to raise awareness and end stigma around mental illness (courtesy)
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Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark is a reporter, covering Caledonia, Kenowa Hills, Godfrey-Lee, Grand Rapids and is a roving reporter for GRCC, Wyoming, Kentwood and Byron Center. She grew up in metro Detroit and her journalism journey brought her west to Grand Rapids via Michigan State University where she covered features and campus news for The State News. She also co-authored three 100-question guides to increase understanding and awareness of various human identities, through the MSU School of Journalism. Following graduation, she worked as a beat reporter for The Ann Arbor News - covering stories on education, community, prison arts and poetry.  Following a stint as a copywriter for a Grand Rapids area PR firm, she transitioned from communications to freelance writing and reporting for SNN. Read Alexis' full bio

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