Mental Health
Academics

What’s Being Done About Students’ Mental Health and What Still Needs to Happen

An Investigation of Three Different High Schools

Passionate about educational and environmental equity. Prefers muffins to cupcakes and the original Law & Order to any and all spinoffs.

America’s high school students are not just unhappy, they’re mentally unhealthy. NPR describes it as an epidemic. A medical study found that nearly 80% of students who need mental health services do not receive them, and this disproportionally affects low-income students from already disadvantaged populations. The problem reaches far and wide, affecting vastly different schools across the country.

From the moment you step through the doors at Hilliard Davidson High School in Ohio, you can practically taste blue. All around on the walls are sprawled words such as “Wildcat Way”, “Davidson Cats”, “School Pride”, and other lines to try to inspire motivation in students. In a school with a student body of around 2,000 (and a graduating class of around 480), many are left to fend for themselves. “Castes” or “cliques” exist and thrive一those involved in sports, those with the best grades, the artistic kids, the average students一each with their own sets of issues. A highly competitive culture also exists, where the top students, all striving for valedictorian, take as many as 7 or 8 Advanced Placement and college classes to maintain their GPA. Along with that, joining as many clubs as possible and achieving leadership positions in those clubs remain a goal of the top students. Even for those students who do not compete at the top, there is a lack of support, high amounts of frustration, and huge gaps of understanding between admin and students.

Carla, a senior at Davidson talked about how last year she struggled with severe stress while taking rigorous classes and struggling to stay afloat.

“Every day was another struggle to get up. I was up until two AM every night, finishing work. I had no one to turn to一teachers didn’t seem to acknowledge or realize how much of a burden school was, and administration did nothing to help or fix it.”

More severe examples also exist. Back in 2016, a student planned and was about to carry out a school shooting at Davidson, right before he was caught and arrested. Just last year, Davidson was faced with the tragic losses of three students to suicide. The question comes as to why these issues persist at Davidson一and whether the administration has done anything to help. Unfortunately, these issues may be deep-rooted in the public school culture, which could take very long to fix.

But private schools are not immune to mental health problems either. When students arrive at Groton School in ninth grade, they are often pitched into the most rigorous environment — academically and socially— that they have ever been in. There is immediate pressure to become friends with the 80 other people that will make up your grade for the next four years. What sports do you play? How long have you been studying ‘X’ instrument? You’re an Olympic level what? A boarding school located in Groton, Massachusetts, Groton School attracts the best and the brightest, and the pressure to assert your capital ‘T’ “Thing” often leads to many academically struggling ninth graders as they struggle to balance their new social life with their challenging academics.

This pressure may or may not wane as the years go on. Social pressures lessen as no one really cares how cool someone may have been before Groton. However, academic pressure never really lets up as older students begin to shift their gears towards getting into the best college. One might think that such a small community would be adept at nurturing its students through the most formative years in their lives — and the school must be given credit for the proficient college counseling suite which is separate from the guidance counseling suite, the lack of class rankings, and the peer counseling system in place. However, every year, a member of the senior class gives a talk about their anxiety or depression and how it got worse at this place. Why is this so? And how might the administration not be doing the best job at shuttling classes out of its gates happy and wholesome?

Charleston County School of the Arts (commonly abbreviated as SOA) also enjoys a fair amount of status (albeit at a much more local level) due to its reputation as being one of the best schools in South Carolina for artistic and academic education in grades 6–12. While this reputation creates a very talented and high-achieving student body, it doesn’t necessarily lend itself to a mentally healthy environment. Balancing school assignments on top of the demands of their artistic major and any other extracurricular activities is manageable for middle school students, but less easily achieved for high schoolers. Similarly to Hilliard Davidson, many top students choose to take challenging honors and AP classes, resulting in a heavy workload that can quickly become overwhelming.

The school has a duty to advocate for its students’ safety and success using all metrics, not just the quantitative ones of grades and test scores.

Junior Gwen* had no issue earning straight As in middle school, but found herself struggling during sophomore year due to emerging mental health issues. Staying at the top of SOA’s highly competitive class requires 100% effort 100% of the time, says Gwen, which requires near-superhuman mental dexterity and is a tall order for students suffering from anxiety and/or depression.

“It requires constantly pushing yourself. Teachers are always piling on assignments, which is anxiety-inducing, and there’s no time or space to step back and re-align. Any day off for self-care makes it that much harder to catch up, and it’s easy to start spiraling under the pressure. How do you get an education when the act of going to school triggers a panic attack? It’s a vicious cycle and it becomes hard to function.”

After her anxiety disorder diagnosis at the beginning of her junior year, Gwen met with her teachers and vice principal and was able to obtain a 504 plan, which gave her an extra 24 hours to complete homework assignments and more time to complete assessments without penalty. While teachers have been varying levels of accommodating, she has found this plan ultimately helpful in relieving some academic stressors. However, she acknowledges that a solid support system at home, professional mental health treatment outside of school, and the vocabulary necessary to articulate her emotional well-being were all necessary to access the help she needed.

Many students are not so fortunate, and the school does not have the resources in place for these students to readily get help. The counseling department at SOA is focused primarily on college and career readiness. While a useful resource for questions about SAT Prep or your schedule for next year, it does not market itself as a place for students to go when struggling with their emotional wellbeing. While an argument can be made for keeping a high school’s college and mental health resources separate, the latter is virtually nonexistent at SOA, creating an uphill battle for any struggling students proactive enough to try to change their academic circumstances. Additionally, it places the responsibility of one’s mental health primarily on the individual, when the school has a duty to advocate for its students’ safety and success using all metrics, not just the quantitative ones of grades and test scores.

Students at the school have repeatedly raised this issue, and this year a school psychologist was made available; however, due to budgetary restrictions, she is only on campus for a few mornings a week. There is no real chance for the student body to bond with her, and an informal survey at the school indicated that few even knew her name.