Kenowa Hills — After recently transferring to Kenowa Hills High School, Sophomore Callisto Novak noticed a difference in how teachers reacted when they shared details about their mental health.
“At my old school, if you told one of the administrators that you struggle with mental health, the response was usually ‘I’m sure it’s all in your head,’” Callisto said. “Here, there are actually productive conversations surrounding our mental health happening.”
In addition to finding spaces around the school where they felt comfortable being who they are, Callisto said it was exciting to learn about the district-wide mental health initiative, Paint Kenowa Green.
Part of efforts to surface mental health awareness all year, Kenowa Hills High School held a spirit week to promote diversity and inclusion.
Callisto said having an inclusive spirit week represented people with different physical and mental abilities in a positive way.
“Mental health isn’t focused on enough and it’s stigmatized. A lot of time if you tell someone about your mental illness, they have a negative reaction because of a lack of education or being misinformed.”
Anne Pacanovsky, autism spectrum disorder teacher and Special Olympics liaison at Kenowa Hills High School, said the idea for an inclusive spirit week grew from hosting the Special Olympics basketball tournament on Feb. 10.
“We wanted to do something to celebrate all students being included, take time to spread positivity and unite our community,” she said.
With help from her peer to peer students, Pacanovsky set a theme for each day of the week, like ‘Hats off to all Abilities’ on Monday and ‘Be a Champion for Inclusion’ on the day of the game.
There also was a daily challenge for students, like sitting with someone new at lunch, giving genuine compliments and writing notes or sending texts to let someone know they are loved.
Callisto and friend Kit Tiavaloja, also a sophomore, made posters to hang around the schools with encouraging messages.
“As a person on the ASD spectrum and with social anxiety, ADHD and depression, it’s important to realize not all disabilities are visible,” Callisto said. “So many of us have mental impairments and they are just as valid as having a physical impairment.”
Kit explained how some neurodivergent people — those whose brain differences affect how their brains function — mask their mental illnesses or disabilities from neurotypical people to “fit in.”
“Camouflaging your behaviors with ones you learned from neurotypical people can make you come across as less odd, but it’s not healthy and it takes so much energy,” Kit said.
Callisto and Kit agreed that going to a school that supports students with different abilities has helped them feel comfortable and improved their mental health at school.
Added Pacanovsky: “We are finding ways to help students come together and find similarities. We’re all here together. We’re all Knights.”