Thornapple Kellogg — As a Friday night football game roared to life this fall at Thornapple Kellogg High School, fans in the student section of the stadium could be heard chanting, “Break the stig-ma (thomp thomp thomp thomp thomp),” using green and purple thundersticks to create the percussion.
The stigma they were chanting about? The one that many students feel when it comes to talking about depression, anxiety and other mental health issues that, according to a 2019 Pew Research study, increased among high schoolers by 57% from the decade prior.
And the pandemic has only made things worse, with the New York Times reporting that “youth mental health difficulties” likely doubled during the pandemic.
That decline in student mental health – and the lingering stigma around getting help – is exactly why TK High School alum Kalvin Shuford joined the Mental Wellness Club last year where he met with a small group of students and teachers.
“We definitely went through a time during the pandemic where it was hard to get through classes,” Shuford said. “And when we came back (to school) everyone didn’t know how to act. So I wanted to (do) this to help get that spark back in the school.”
The club sponsored Mental Health Awareness Night at the September home game, where members handed out thundersticks and led “Break the Stigma” chants alongside members of Student Council. Football players, cheerleaders and marching band members participated too, by including green mental health awareness ribbons on their gear to encourage fellow students to seek help when things get hard.
What’s Behind the Stigma?
As the Mental Wellness Club gathered recently to prepare for another fun event, students talked about the concern they have for peers who don’t seek help when they face a mental health crisis. Freshman Israel Sherk fears that stigma will lead her peers to consider suicide instead of reaching out. That’s why she’s challenging herself to lead by example when it comes to dealing with stress and anxiety.
“I’m working on telling myself, ‘You can ask for help and there’s no shame in that,’ and ‘It’s OK to not be OK all the time,” she said.
‘Starting a club doesn’t have to be top-down. In fact, it’s been way more interesting for students to have a say in this.’— Club Adviser Tricia Rickert
Senior Stephany Lopez-Tapia worries about students from immigrant families like hers who struggle with feeling like they don’t belong at the school. She said many of her friends hesitate to seek help because of stigma regarding mental health issues at home.
“(Immigrant parents) think you’re living the American dream, so you should be fine,” Stephany said. “But it’s completely the opposite because we look different, we feel different, we don’t feel like we’re from the U.S. … we’re stuck in the middle.”
She encourages her peers to be honest with their parents anyway.
“I tell them, ‘Hey, it’s OK. My parents are the same, but we can do this together. I tell them what I do and how I talk to my parents about it.’”
Senior Keely Lambert agreed that stigma regarding mental health at home stops a lot of her peers from seeking support.
“For some people it’s hard to talk to your parents because they just say, ‘Your life is too good to have mental illness’, which is just untrue.”
For now, the students channel their concerns for friends into assembling bingo game components for an upcoming carnival geared toward helping students de-stress before exams. The bingo squares feature various mental health boosters to create calm, like making a photo collage, hanging out with friends or rearranging bedroom furniture.
After the carnival, the club will present a special video featuring its own members talking about what they do when they struggle.
Club Easy to Replicate
English teacher Tricia Rickert, an adviser to the Mental Health Club, said starting the group at TKHS was a grassroots initiative – one that would be easy to replicate at any high school.
“It was really a student approaching a teacher and then a group of us starting a book study. … Starting a club doesn’t have to be top-down. In fact, it’s been way more interesting for students to have a say in this.”
Shuford, now a freshman studying business communications at GRCC, hoped from the beginning that the club would inspire students from other schools to create their own clubs to help break the stigma around mental health.
But for now, he’s just happy to see his little sister, freshman Marlee Shuford, take part in the club he helped create. And she’s happy her brother made a space where she can feel safe to talk about mental health.
“I just like talking about it with others and being able to speak about it freely,” she said.
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