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Anonymous survey seeks info on stressors, health

To celebrate our 10th anniversary, your School News Network team is re-publishing some early stories from each school district. We’re also updating some favorite profiles of students and educators. These stories highlight a decade of change in our schools and public education. 

LowellThis story was originally published in March 2015.

Not far below the surface of high-school life, with its tests and social pressures and family problems, lie a rash of mental-health problems: anxiety, stress, depression, even thoughts of suicide.

So say students and counselors at Lowell High School, where a groundbreaking survey will ask students about the health issues they face. The school will be part of a community-wide survey, called LoWellness, which recently launched as a first-of-its-kind initiative to assess the health-care needs of Lowell students and residents.

Some say it could help bring needed resources to students struggling with depression and other health problems such as smoking, drinking and drugs – as long as it’s confidential and followed by meaningful action.

“A lot of students don’t understand mental health,” said Maddy Iteen, a senior. “I’ve heard kids making fun of other kids: ‘You’re not depressed.’ You really don’t know if they are or not.”

The survey also could reduce stigma and fears around mental-health problems, said Addie Grohman, a junior: “It needs to be taught that it’s not something to make fun of or be ashamed of.”

But for students to give honest answers, they need assurances of confidentiality and that this will not be just one more pointless survey, Grohman and others stress.

“If they make us go to a mandatory mental-health assembly, half the kids aren’t going to pay attention,” said junior Tess Richardson. “They’re going to zone out.”

Seeking to ‘Impact the Generations’

Organizers insist the surveys of both students and community residents will lead to very practical actions. The initiative of Lowell Community Wellness, a nonprofit, aims to identify health needs and service gaps in order to marshal the resources to meet them.

“We’re trying to create a culture of wellness that will impact the generations,” said Jodie Seese, program director of LoWellness. “That’s the beauty of Lowell. We’re just the right size that we can pull this off, get some meaningful data and measure how we can improve people’s lives.”

The project was officially announced Saturday, March 28 (2015) at the Lowell EXPO. A press conference included Lowell Superintendent Greg Pratt and Tom Haas, president of Grand Valley State University, two of several partners in the effort.

“This survey will help begin the conversation and development of programs to address unmet economic and health needs in our community and for Lowell families,” said Pratt, adding that “healthy students are healthy learners.”

More than 300 people have already taken the anonymous, 70-question survey, which is available online here. Though focused on those who live and work in Lowell, it is open to non-residents as well. Seese hopes to collect at least 3,000 responses.

A corporate wellness consultant and 10-year Lowell resident, Seese said many residents face barriers to good health, such as lack of transportation, insurance coverage and Internet access. Poor nutrition, lack of exercise and diabetes are common concerns. The survey asks about these issues, as well as respondents’ health conditions and services they would like to see.

Once the data are compiled, researchers will look at possible pilot programs and services. Those could include anything from a low-income health clinic to a swimming pool, she said.

“We’re doing it just because it’s the right thing to do, and because our community is so good at helping each other to attain larger goals,” she added.

Students Need Mental-Health Services  

Surveys of students in grades 3-12 will be taken next fall, voluntarily and with parents’ consent. Although all health problems will be addressed, mental health has been cited as a particular concern at the high school.

Counselor Tory Parsons said she sees stress and depression taking a toll on many students. Although counselors like her can help, there is only one professional therapy practice in Lowell for more serious problems, she noted. That poses a problem for students with limited family finances and transportation.

“We do a lot of referring out,” said Parsons, a member of the LoWellness advisory board. “If they have to go to counseling, either in Lowell or Grand Rapids, they may or may not do it. But if it was here in the school, they might take advantage of it.”

While many students need better access to all medical and dental services, Parsons added, anxiety has been “through the roof” this year.

Tess Richardson, a National Honor Society student, said her anxiety comes from academic pressure and a barrage of spring tests. But other students face such bad family and personal problems that they will confide thoughts of suicide – putting their friends in a scary spot, Richardson and others say.

“They need more people to talk to, like adults,” said Louie Hart, a senior. “Sometimes your friends might be scared to tell someone who could actually help.”

Having a mental-health clinic right in school would be “wonderful,” added Maddy Iteen.

“There’s a lot of kids that don’t know they actually need help, and their parents aren’t there for them,” Iteen said. “I think that would be a great idea.”

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is editor-in-chief of SNN, and covers series and issues stories for all districts. As a reporter for The Grand Rapids Press/mLive from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years and its columnist for 20. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion News Service and Faith & Leadership magazine. Read Charles' full bio


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