Lowell, Thornapple Kellogg, Rockford — As school districts across Michigan plan to increase monetary investment in improving student mental health, students from some area schools are taking the initiative to let their peers know that it’s OK to struggle, and it’s OK to seek help.
At a Lowell High School assembly this spring, student body president and senior Emma Sage gathered a group of student leaders to answer their peers’ questions about mental health.
“Mental health is such a problem with our generation now that when one person starts talking, there’s a lot of people who can relate and it’s really important to get that conversation started,” she said during that assembly.
Emma decided to create the mental health panel after attending a similar event at Kent ISD where a small group of students from schools across the county talked about their struggles. In January, she sent a survey to the student body and asked what topics they wanted to hear about from their peers.
“I think doing it with the form made it so you could be more honest, because it’s anonymous,” she said.
Student panelists came from different grades and with a variety of interests, including everything from lacrosse and soccer to Model UN and theater.
Freshman Page Wilcox plays golf and lacrosse, and said she wanted to bring an athlete’s perspective on mental health to her peers.
“A lot of people deal with (mental health struggles) but they don’t do anything about it and they feel like they’re alone and have to deal with it internally. So I think giving these examples of what we personally do, because we’re all very different students (is helpful),” she said.
Encouraging Male Peers
Juniors Braylon Lakiri and Hayden Gough said that it can be hard as guys to talk about their struggles, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to cope in positive ways that suit their own comfort levels. Hayden, who talked about self-help strategies during the assembly, likes to engage in solo activities when he’s struggling.
“I’m a huge overthinker, so I spend a lot of time trying to clear my head, like playing the piano or going for walks to stop thinking about things I can’t control,” he said.
Braylon, a track and cross-country athlete, emphasized the need to seek mental health support from friends in tandem with strategies like professional therapy.
“I think therapy is most effective when it’s in addition to talking to friends or the people around you — or maybe just hanging out with a group of people trying to get different perspectives on things,” he said.
Pressure to Perform
Panelists agreed that the mental health crisis has a lot to do with social media and the pressure to perform in school and on the field.
“Everyone’s constantly comparing themselves to each other, especially with grades and GPA and stuff,” Emma said. “It’s like ‘Oh, I have to get a better grade than them,’ and it’s not actually about learning. It’s just about, like, playing a game to see who’s the best, who’s the smartest.”
Emma added that being a high-achieving student who gets good grades, plays sports and is a student leader can camouflage when she does struggle with mental health.
“I’ve always been, like, the well-behaved, everything-comes-easy-to-me (person), like that kind of kid that (makes adults say), ‘She’s got it; she’ll handle it no matter what.’ But then it’s like, I do have struggles and they don’t always realize that, and I feel like that’s true for a lot of high-achieving students.”
Hayden, who is the son of a school administrator, agreed.
“A lot of time it isn’t the parents putting pressure on you, as much as internalizing it because you don’t want to disappoint them,” he said.
Audience Members Appreciate Peers’ Efforts
Most students who attended listened attentively as their peers spoke about mental health from the stage.
Senior Addison Rodriguez said she’s just glad mental health is being talked about.
“I like that they’re pushing toward doing this a lot more. … I just think being more active and pushing it more, not even just for our class as it is now, but for classes in the high school later on, it’s very important that they actually make an effort to do more things,” she said.
Below are a few of the answers Lowell student gave to questions submitted by their peers:
Question 1: What is the best way to reset after a stressful day?
Gabby, senior: “The best thing you can do in a bad situation is to control your reaction to that situation. … After a stressful day, I like to go home and clean my room and organize everything in it. I can’t control what’s going on outside of my room, but at least I can control what’s going on on the inside, like how it’s appearing. I can control lighting candles and just creating a nice ambience.”
Question 2: What’s the best way to get help if you’re having a hard time? Who do you talk to?
Emma, senior: “My friends are the most important people in my life, and it’s really important for you to find that group of friends who you can fully trust, and support each other. I haven’t always done the best at expressing my emotions with my friends and it’s taken me a lot of time to find those people that I trust, but now that I have they’re my full support system and I’m really grateful for them and it’s really nice to just be able to open up and talk to them.”
Braylon, junior: “I think a common thing people say, but it’s true, is ‘therapy.’ And I think therapy is most effective when it’s in addition to talking to friends or the people around you. Or maybe just hanging out with a group of people trying to different perspectives on things without being upfront and saying, ‘Oh, I’m feeling this way.’”
Hayden, junior: “Something I would advocate for when it comes to getting help is the idea of self-help. Personally I’m a pretty closed-off person; I don’t have a habit of telling people how I’m feeling at a given moment and so I think it’s great if you can go to a therapist and tell them all these things. It’s great if you can go to your friends because communication is key, like Gabby said, but sometimes I think you don’t necessarily need to tell every piece of your problem.”
Question 3: What’s the best way to help others?
Emma, senior: “I would say one of the best ways to help others is to just be a shoulder for others to lean on. … And you don’t always have to be searching actively for solutions to the problems people come to you with. A lot of time as teenagers, we don’t always have the exact solutions for the problems our friends and classmates go through. So just focusing on listening to what they have to say and trying to understand their struggles and be there for them and support them, is really important.”
Hayden, junior: “Going into every day with the understanding that I don’t know what I don’t know. The person next to me could have had one of the worst days they’ve ever experienced, and something as simple as moving over so they have space or giving them a smile or a high five or a wave, something as small as that, could make their day.”
Question 4: How do you stay motivated?
Page, freshman: “Motivation is a big thing for me. Feeling motivated and self-discipline are different. Motivation and inspiration are both feelings, while discipline is your ability to control your feelings and overcome your weaknesses and the ability to pursue something despite the temptation to abandon it. Notice the word ‘despite’ is not ‘without,’ because you’re still going to have these feelings of abandonment and not want to reach your goals. A quote I say a lot is “Look for a way through, not a way out,” because in the end if you want to reach these big goals that you have, taking the little steps to look for a way through and not away around it — the easier way — is not going to benefit you in the long run.
Other local student-initiated mental health conversations
Students from Thornapple Kellogg High School’s mental wellness club initiated a similar assembly in December, just before winter exams. They created a video for their peers with encouragement and ideas for how to be proactive when dealing with stress and anxiety during exam time.
At a mental health-themed tailgate party and football game in the fall, the same TKHS students brought attention to the issue that has been declared a full-on crisis by the U.S. Surgeon General. Their aim was to “break the stigma” surrounding talking about mental health, which was what they chanted in the student section during the football game.
Rockford High School students who belong to the award-winning Beyond the Rock video production team created public service announcements and videos about mental health for their peers to watch throughout the 2022-23 school year.
A PSA entitled “Be the Person” encourages students to be the type of person who is kind to those they notice might be struggling with negative thoughts. The video won first place in the PSA category this spring at the Michigan Association of Broadcasters award show.