Students look for mental health
support in the return to in-person
By Lila Cohen, Deputy Editor, Lucy Wing, Content Editor, Emma Deines, Content Editor, Savannah Butcher, Managing Editor, and Blake Grossman, Reporter
All student interviewees in this article are quoted under a pseudonym to ensure their privacy.
Content warning: This article covers triggering topics such as mental health, death, and trauma. If these make you uncomfortable, we suggest you stop reading. If you are struggling with these issues, suicidal thoughts or actions, please make a trusted friend, family member, or staff member aware and reachout to the resources below.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
DOVE Project Advocacy Hotline: (206)-462-0911
Students find difficulty in their return to school
From the beginning of the pandemic, experts knew there would be a huge impact on mental health. Now, almost 2 years later, as data begins to trickle in, many are realizing that not only did the pandemic have ramifications on mental health, but the transition back to school is presenting its own unique challenges.
Data from an anonymous survey sent out by The Riptide in November 2021 showed that depression and anxiety are still prevalent issues at VHS. Out of 125 VHS student responses, 56.3 percent reported being depressed and 82.1 percent identified as having anxiety.
Since March of 2020, students across the nation have been coping with the collective trauma caused by the pandemic. Many teens have been exposed to death on an unprecedented scale. Last summer, VHS unexpectedly lost two members of the 2021 graduating class, and the grief of these tragedies is weighing on students.
“Something I have struggled with particularly this year is the loss of my friend Will Huck. The reality of his death feels as fresh as it did when I first heard about his accident. Some days, it is extremely hard for me to be motivated when I am having a significantly difficult week grieving. I can only imagine how other students are affected by the deaths of family or friends [and how that] makes school difficult for them,” VHS student Esther said.
In addition to the loss of loved ones, in the return to school, students are also dealing with an increased academic workload.
“I've had to deal with processing and coping with death while still trying to get homework assignments in on time,” VHS student Rio said.
For many the weight of loss has made it hard for them to stay on top of their academic work.
“I've been more stressed from the workload, and have become more isolated from others because of it. My anxiety rises every time I get an assignment wrong or get a low grade,” a VHS student said in response to the Riptide survey.
The transition from a three class course load to six classes a day has greatly impacted many students. While stress from this workload has caused anxiety for some, the social aspect has caused anxiety for others.
“Returning to in-person school has made my anxiety way worse. I became used to not going out in public and being put on the spot during the pandemic, but being in [in]-person school has reintroduced that. I’ve felt so anxious some days I don’t even want to go to school. I come home feeling so tired from trying to battle my anxiety all day, that when I do get home I just want to sleep. Getting out of bed is more difficult than ever,” a survey response said.
Other students have found the transition back to be positive for their mental health.
“I feel less disconnected from everything and I attribute most of that to being able to connect with my peers on a day-to-day basis. In person learning is also a lot easier for me and my ADHD [compared to] distanced learning over the course of the pandemic,” a VHS student said in response to the Riptide survey.
However, 44 percent of students who responded to the survey reported struggling with their mental health in the return to in-person school. While transition is difficult for everyone for different reasons, many find the school environment itself overwhelming.
“It's always overstimulating as it's too loud. There's always so many scents, and flashing lights, and so much movement. It's just honestly too much to handle in general, and then I have to function and do school work and socialize on top of it all? Like no, that just ain't happening, at least not without some casualties,” a survey response said.
VHS reflects on ways to support student mental health
If students require more support, some feel it is the school’s responsibility to aid students in picking up the pieces. VHS principal Danny Rock recognized that the school could do more in terms of supporting student mental health.
“I don't think we're doing enough [for students’ mental health]. I think that we have more need than we have resources pointed at that need. I would like to have a curriculum that feels relevant and meaningful to students that would show up in SMART period and possibly some classrooms that would give students tools, ally resources, and supports for responding to students who are in distress,” Rock said.
During the nine years Rock has been principal, VHS has attempted three mental health educational programs, the last one ending in 2018. Between 2017 and 2020, VHS spent over $150,000 in Vashon Schools Foundation funding for student mental health supports.
Previous educational mental health programs for staff and students have been canned curriculums. Rock recognized these curricula often felt forced and disconnected from what VHS students needed and this is likely the reason why these programs didn’t succeed. Moving forward he hopes to approach mental health differently.
“That means maybe not plucking something off the shelf like a canned curriculum, because the more it feels prescribed, the more likely it'll be resisted,” Rock said.
However, some programs have helped bridge the gap between students who are struggling and their friends who want to support them.
“I remember last year when there was that anxiety film [Angst], [my friend] watched it and she came up to me afterwards. She was like, ‘I understand what you go through now. I don't know what it's like, but I understand it more’… as somebody who suffers from really bad anxiety, knowing that more people are educated about it is really helpful,” Hope said.
If they work as intended, mental health curriculums have the benefit of supporting all students and teaching them the basic skills of managing their social and emotional needs.
“Personally, I think we need to be offering broad support that can help a lot of students at once. Not one on one in my office or a therapist's office, but things for in classrooms,” VHS counselor Tara Vanselow said.
43.8 percent of the students who responded to the Riptide survey communicated that they wished for more support from the school in some capacity.
“I don't think [the school] should be responsible for every detail of our mental health, like getting medication, but I do think they have a big role because school is a huge [part of] our lives right now. It's really important for us to be able to function mentally and physically to perform our best in school,” Jay said.
Moving forward with support systems
Recognizing there is a mental health crisis is the first step to solving one. Action is next, and VHS seems to be stuck on what happens when students reach out for support. VHS draws on Neighborcare, Vashon Youth and Family Services (VYFS), and other external resources, to help support student mental health.
Neighborcare therapist Anna Waldman is the only therapist employed to support all 500+ students at VHS. Especially in the return to school, the demand for therapy is high; often leaving students on the waitlist. If the case is more urgent, Waldman looks to connect the student with other resources.
“I think many VHS students aren't aware of how easy it is to access services at VYFS. In an ideal world we would have [a] better collaboration with VYFS … [then] I think anyone who wanted therapy could easily get it,” Waldman said.
Many students are turning to their friends to find the support they feel they are lacking. 70 percent of students who responded to the survey reported coping with their struggles through socializing.
“I've never felt like there was nobody I could talk to, just that I didn't want to burden my lovely friends with my issues. The good thing about true friendship is that a real friend will put aside everything to listen and support you, and make you feel valued and heard,” Esther said.
However, without knowledge on mental health sometimes even those with good intentions struggle to offer support.
“When I do ask for help, I would just like for there to be a more empathetic response. I feel like sometimes people get caught up in the heat of the moment when someone reveals something and they feel sympathy, but the empathy isn't there. They're like, ‘Oh my gosh, I'm so sorry'. But they don't really offer that support, that mental emotional stability that kids need,” Jay said.
Some students are craving a more understanding classroom environment, especially surrounding the connection between motivation and mental health.
“[I wish] teachers [could be] more understanding of mental health because [there are times] when you come in and you just can't function and your teachers are expecting you to do this and this and this and you are just kind of like ‘I'm here, I got out of bed,” Hope said. “Please be grateful that I'm here. And let me just be here.’ Some days I can't even pick up the pencil. I think it would be nice for teachers to be more aware and understanding.
Hope points to VHS math teacher Nic Warmenhoven as an example of the impact that occurs when teachers work to build that connection.
“I feel welcomed in [Mr. Warmenhoven’s] classroom because he wants me to succeed… And when teachers realize that [there are multiple ways to accommodate students] and then they run with it, they create all these new opportunities. That’s what teaching is supposed to be like. I want to be a teacher and [so] seeing Mr. Warmenhoven [set that example is amazing],” Hope said.
Connections between students, in addition to those between staff and students, are a valuable support system and they start with communication.
In recent years, VHS has built a track record of listening to student voices in major decisions but administration has had difficulties transferring student voice into action.
“I think the school has been successful in supporting students in a few ways. Gender-neutral bathrooms, counselors, etc. have all been examples of steps in the right direction [of] caring for student mental health. However, I see a lot of room for improvement at VHS… In my opinion, mental health awareness starts in the classroom,” Esther said.
Mental health awareness may start in the classroom, but for many, breaks from the classroom are just as important. Approximately 20 percent of students who responded to the Riptide survey reported wanting the opportunity to take breaks both during the school day and in the form of mental health days.
“As an anxious student with friends who also suffer from anxiety disorders, access to the bathroom sometimes means the difference between having a panic attack in class, versus a panic attack in private,” Esther said. “If the bathrooms aren't going to be available to students as often going forward, there needs to be an alternative accommodation made for students to calm down in private before returning to class that doesn't alert the entire class to the fact they may be having a mental health crisis. The school needs to understand that for an anxious student, lack of support like this means students simply not coming to school.”
For some, this safe space is the VHS library. Hope acknowledged the space Callan Foster has created in the library and pointed to them as an example of VHS as their best.
“I think a lot of times people who you don't expect to have issues often go unseen… So when supportive people such as Callan or another student say, ‘Hey, I'm here for you, you can have the space to regroup real quick if you need to. They are saving lives and I think it [is] important to have more spaces like that,” she said.
VHS has the opportunity to create an environment where mental health is prioritized. While some feel it is impossible to reach an agreement on the best ways to support students, others feel that building understanding is the place to start.
“I think that it's important for everyone to have empathy for each other and try to understand everyone's situations and their point of views because [we] can get really clouded in our own mind. Being able to see all perspectives and being able to all be together whenever it comes to mental health is really important,” Jay said.