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Mental health at M-A: We can do better [Updated]

Editor’s note: if you are feeling suicidal, please call the suicide hotline at 1-800-273-8255 and if there is a medical emergency, call 911.

Update: There are multiple outside providers that come to campus to meet with specific students with specific needs, such as OutletPride Center, Rape Trauma Center, Suicide Prevention Center, and Starvista/Insights. The eight school counselors also have mental health training. Last Spring, all staff completed mental health training through Kognito and administration is working on training new staff. Some language may have implied that there are only two StarVista counselors, but this has been updated to say that only two are on campus to alleviate confusion. This has been updated.

World Mental Health Day took place on Tuesday, but there were no announcements at school and little acknowledgment from the mainstream media about the struggles that people with mental illnesses face. Over 20 percent of United States youth have a mental disorder. We all know someone with a mental illness, even if they have not disclosed it. Mental illness covers a variety of disorders, including mood disorders such as depression, personality disorders, eating disorders, anxiety disorders, and others.

A student at M-A was pulled out of class two weeks ago to see StarVista, the student mental health services available on campus. The student felt invalidated and not heard in her conversation with the counselor. The counselor told her that she “didn’t look depressed,” after the student explained that she had been dealing with depression for several months, and the counselor also asked, “Why are you depressed?” as if there was one clear answer.

When the student asked what prompted StarVista to pull her out of class, the counselor was unsure and said they did not even know why she was there.

StarVista only has two counselors available on any given day on a campus of 2,400 students. Obviously, some changes are needed in the quality and quantity of mental health resources available at M-A.

Depression has no face; anyone can be affected and the way people present on the outside may not match the pain they are feeling on the inside. The questions that the counselor asked are questions that someone trained as a student mental health counselor should know are insensitive.

One way our school does get it right is with Miki Cristerna. Cristerna is M-A’s support service coordinator and Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist. She provides needed support and help with reentry to school for students who have been hospitalized due to suicide attempts or plans. Hospitalization can be extremely traumatic for students, and reentry to school life after missing school can be a drastic transition that is difficult for someone in a fragile state to deal with. Cristerna helps to buffer this transition by informing the student’s teachers and letting them know that the student may need extra time to make up schoolwork. She also checks in with the student to make sure that their re-entry goes well and helps them with any difficulties.

Cristerna is also the 504 Plan coordinator at M-A. She makes sure that students with any physical disability or mental illness have the right resources to help them throughout the school day.

Mental health is something that should be talked about far more than it currently is in our community. In an area that has seen many suicides, with Palo Alto having more than four times the national average suicide rate, there is clearly a problem. Whether it is a teacher discounting a student who has anxiety, or the lack of in-depth conversations taking place at M-A and around the world about mental health, the stigma around it is pervasive. People tend to get uncomfortable when the topic of mental health is brought up, but it is necessary to open a dialogue.

Stigma surrounding self-harm, eating disorders, and other mental illnesses that are more visible can be difficult for recovering students. Many feel like they need to hide scars or weight changes to make other people more comfortable or to avoid awkward conversations. There should be more empathy towards students struggling with these issues.

Among high schoolers, jokes about being “triggered” or jokes about suicide are commonplace. For someone who has experienced suicidal ideation, these comments can feel a lot more painful than intended. Although it is difficult to expect some high schoolers to have the maturity to be sensitive, there should be more thought put into the comments people make and how they affect others.

Some M-A students have taken it upon themselves to bring an outlet and safe space for discussions about mental health on campus. Bring Change 2 Mind is a club at M-A that holds educational presentations and discussions about mental health. It would be nice to see more support groups in our community, or even in our school, for teenagers dealing with mental illness.

M-A holds Challenge Day every fall for the freshman class, and it provides a safe space for crucial discussions about mental illness. However, these discussions do not continue once Challenge Day is over and the support and empathy students may have felt at Challenge Day fades in the following three years. Perhaps there should be some kind of follow-up education with our student population regarding mental illness.

Despite M-A’s efforts to be more understanding of those who struggle with mental illness, not enough real conversations are taking place on campus. Posters that state, “suicide is preventable” hang in the Health Aide office, but many students still feel very alone with their mental illness. More discussion and education are needed than just hanging a poster.

I call for M-A to have more open conversations about mental health that are inclusive of students dealing with mental illness. For M-A to have more compassion towards those who are struggling but may appear fine. For M-A to make educating students about mental health a priority so students can become more aware and compassionate towards their peers and those suffering can learn about resources available to help them.

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