Story

A Conversation With High School Students About Mental Health

South Dakota students are no different than the many other students in the U.S. who face a lack of mental health resources in their schools.

Over the course of 2019, Student Voice has been traveling around the country connecting with students in every corner of America. This transcript chronicles one such conversation at a public high school in South Dakota.

As we travel across the country, we intentionally seek out voices that traditionally go unheard. We know that the status quo in the education system marginalizes most students’ voices. And we know that even within that context, there are voices that are especially silenced. Those groups include young women, students of color, LGBT students, students with learning differences, students from low-income backgrounds, and English language learners and others.

This roundtable started off like any other, but an important dialogue about the state of mental health in the school quickly began. The names of the students have been hidden for anonymity.

Dylan: I think mental health isn’t recognized as it should be. Not just in this high school. This is my third high school and I’ve seen it all three states I’ve lived in. It’s the same: they don’t recognize mental health as something that is important. They focus instead on keeping kids out of trouble but don’t think enough about our mental health.

Cailee: Going off of that, at the beginning of the year in my English class, I did a speech about suicide and depression. During that class period everyone was really touched. At the end, we did a raise of hands of people who felt anxious at school and the majority raised their hands. We came to realize that it’s a big problem and asked, why is no one doing anything about this? With the help of our teacher we went to the principal and he heard us. He promised he’d try to do something, but he never got back to us. And I think that that’s a really big problem because it’s such a big problem and it’s actually killing people. Why is no one doing anything about it?

Simone: Going off of the mental health, I think a lot of people feel that way. Like you said with your English project, a lot of people feel depressed and things like this but they don’t want to show it because they’re afraid of being judged or disrespected because they feel this way,. I think people put mental health down and that needs to change because everyone feels this way at some point and we need to realize that.

Cailee: Part of that is that you can’t go to the counselor because the counselor’s solution is to send them to the hospital. Some families can’t do that.

Dylan: People don’t want to go to the counselor because they don’t want to be sent to the hospital. I know people who have been sent to the hospital and came out more crushed and depressed then when they went in. Weeks later they disappear and I haven’t seen them because whatever caused that while they were in the hospital have made them feel worse than they were.

Sophia: Part of the problem with being sent to the hospital (they’ve tried to send me to the hospital a couple of times) is that it causes a lot of family tensions because some people can’t afford it. Half of us are broke, okay? We can’t afford to go to the hospital, so there needs to be a different solution than just sending a kid to the hospital and hoping that they get fixed.

Alessia: People just really aren’t educated about it. There’s such a stigma around it. Wanting to send students to the hospital, the majority of the time, they’ll walk out of there feeling more depressed because it makes them feel more secluded and alone. There’s a stigma around mental health that we need to get rid of.

Kassandra: I’ve also noticed, going off of that, that going to the hospital for some people lightened more areas that they were trying to block away. It reopened that pain and that grief.

Cailee: When people come back from the hospital they reenter the same environment that made them so depressed. The hospital doesn’t do anything if you’re put back in the stress and bullying of school everyday.

Alessia: When you go to a safe environment, you get used to that. When you come back to school you’re in that same environment that put you there in the first place.

Simone: I think there needs to be more understanding. Especially with teachers and people in the study body. A lot of teachers think we’re just being teenagers and that we’re stupid. No, there’s deeper problems and people aren’t realizing that so we’re just getting worse and worse. They’re just going back to the stressful environment and nothing is happening.

Jordan: there’s also those people who like to post that they’re depressed and then everyone feels pity for them. Here, it’s the people who really do try to go to get help are the one’s who want attention. I feel like that’s so wrong. Like you don’t know their story and you’re already judging them.

Dylan: It’s also linked to social media. Anyone can post about it and say that they’re so sad, but what are you doing to help them? Posting may not fix it but it’s breaking down the stigma post by post.

Taylor: I feel like people who post things on social media need someone to talk to. They want a specific person to reach out but they have to put it out there for everybody.

Jordan: It’s really hard to reach out. I’ve had this experience myself and getting mental health treatment is not as easy as it seems. Even if your parents are great with it, which most of the time they aren’t, you try and you still can’t get all the help that you need.

Dylan: Going off of that, parents don’t realize that their children are having serious problems. They think that they get it and they’re just being teenagers. They think that there’s nothing actually “wrong” with our lives. That needs to be recognized everywhere.

Simone: The distrust stems to all adults. We don’t trust the teachers and the guidance counselors and that carries home to parents and we feel like they will have the same reaction as people at school have to their problems. They don’t think anything will get done. That also depends on home circumstances as well.

Iqra: I guess my question is what can we do as students to make things better in school? How can we boost morale and make school more fun and not a horrible place to come?

Simone: I think one of the biggest issues with the student body is that students don’t care. Because they’re scared to care about things, so they’re not going to go out and do them. This leads to no one participating because they’re afraid of looking uncool or something like that. People are scared to care.

Jordan: A lot of students don't participate in anything. The positivity week [last year] was good for a few people, but most were just doing it half heartedly. I know a lot of people who were just doing it to get the free stuff, not because it was a positive thing to do.

Kassandra: I wish the school allowed students to deal with their problems more. I have had experiences where I have been bullied and the counselors tell me to try and solve it myself and then I get detentions because I’m ‘starting problems’. But if we can’t solve our own problems and they won’t do it for us than how are we supposed to get over this?

Cailee: It’s like you’re just supposed to ignore it and trust that it’ll go away.

Derek: Maybe we could bring in someone to speak about looking for early signs of suicide or depression. That could be helpful to recognize signs in people. My parents talk to me about stuff and say ‘talk to us about whatever you want’ and not everyone has that. So something should be brought to the school if it can be.

Kassandra: When we do the pep assemblies, too, we should do a few where we focus on the problems. Like the problem of bullying, bring it into the light instead of shoving it into the corner where no one realizes it. A lot of the bullying is hidden in cruel jokes that people don’t realize are bullying until someone says ‘hey, that’s not right’

Jordan: Yeah but as soon as you say ‘hey, that’s not right’, you’re not cool and not popular. Because you stand up for someone they’ll act like you just can’t take a joke.

Kassandra: Yes but it shouldn’t be. We shouldn’t care more about cliques than someone who is getting bullied and mentally destroyed for someone.

Simone: A lot of people try to make mental health and depression light-hearted. It’s a serious problem and needs to be treated as such. We need to have a serious, sit-down conversation with the entire student body and say ‘look, here’s what’s actually happening. Stop trying to make it light-hearted since it’s not light-hearted. It’s actually very dark and needs to be treated like a serious problem.’

Cailee: I feel like there’s such a big stigma around mental illness, but we have the power to do something about it. If we find people who are willing to come forward and share their stories at an assembly, we could potentially beat the stigma around it and save a lot of lives. It would mean more coming from someone your own age than some adult talking about how they were depressed when they were a teenager.

Alessia: Giving an education, giving a light into the mental health issues and the issues people may have will lighten the judgement. I think there will always be jdugement within schools because we’re high schoolers with opinions who are just trying to figure htings out, but it would lighten the stigma around mental health. To have students, not adults, help would make a difference.

Jeremiah: The stigma is so ingrained with the people that we fear to ever spread it. So we keep it hidden within and we can’t really talk about it because we fear being judged.

Dylan: I feel like what’s wrong with how it is not is that you cannot change how people are going to act or do. But if you educate them, you change their mind, which can change their actions.

Simone: I think if people were more understanding. People don’t realize that depressed people put on a happy face and mask everyday so that people don't realize it. It’s not until that mask cracks and shatters that people realize that they pushed that person too far. It’s already too late.

Sophia: My freshman year was the first time someone I knew killed themselves. It was a suicide of someone at the school. The next week I expected to watch the school put in a half-assed effort and put up signs about positivity. But they didn’t even do that. I don’t know what I expected but I expected something, even if we could tell it wasn’t genuine. It wasn’t even that.

Kassandra: And that’s the stuff that makes us feel like it doesn’t matter if we speak up. What does it matter if I say anything if I’m not going to be heard? That’s what it breaks down to. If the educators educated people about it, then the people who are bullying other people would realize that what they’re doing is wrong and change their actions.

Sophia: We’re here to learn. If we were to learn how to have actual real discussions, rather than unnecessary things, even for people who don’t know what they want to do but still want to have these discussions and know that this is important for everyday life. Because it is. Mental health should be part of our everyday discussion. And it kind of is. We always ask people ‘how are you?’ so it should be important to education.

At this point, students began to discuss ALICE, a recently established protocol at the school to be used in the event of a shooting. ALICE stands for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Escape.

Derek: With this whole idea of the ALICE thing we’ve had recently, I’m so glad that they finally switched from hiding in a corner waiting to be hurt, but it’s kind of weird to have ALICE without something beforehand. That person [the shooter] broke, but we shouldn’t just drop them. We need to start discussing stuff to help people before they break.

Simone: We need to understand why this is happening and why people are doing these things so that we can actually stop having this problem. No one wants to be in a school shooting, no one wants to shoot up a school. We need to learn why these people feel this way and that goes back to depression, bullying, succluding, and judgement.

Sophia: There’s so many problems where instead of dealing with the root source of it, all we do is learn how to deal with it if it actually happens. We don't actually get to the reason of why it would happen in the first place.

Jordan: And they always show videos. They don't talk to you actually person to person. They just show you the video and ask if you have questions. If you don’t, then it’s just over.

Zachary: With the video, even with the CPR video, some kids are just staring off into space. I think there needs to be something we do besides a video. Kids don’t listen and nothing will change.

Jordan: But I think it’s hard because as much as I like the idea someone brought up before about an assembly where people talk about their depression and make change, I think some kids still won’t pay attention. It’ll be hard to bring everyone together when most people still don’t care.

Simone: There needs to be more engagement.

Dylan: I agree with that but I think that if we’re at an assembly and people are hearing other people’s stories of how they’ve been affected, it’ll be more real to them. Yeah, you see things on social media, but it’s not right in front of you.

While the policies and protocols discussed in this conversation are unique to the specific school, this conversation is symbolic of concerns and sentiments about mental health students have expressed to us all semester. Mental health has come up in every single roundtable we have facilitated during the spring semester. In each instance students have expressed a feeling of belittlement. With little understanding about the struggles inflicted by mental health, students report feeling alone and unsupported in school and at home.

According to The National Alliance on Mental Illness, 1 in 5 people will have mental health problems during high school. Yet as these South Dakota students discussed, the stigma surrounding mental health creates an image that those who struggle with mental health problems are lazy and unmotivated, not people with illnesses who deserve the same commitment to care that those with physical injuries would not think twice about receiving.  

As hard as it is to read conversations like this one, it is imperative to give students the time and space to discuss their educational experiences and listen to what they say, regardless of the discomfort or frustration it may bring. Our education system must invest in mental health training for teachers, counselors, and administrators in order to best support students and create an environment in which they are comfortable turning to the adults in the school building when they need help.

About Student Voice

Student Voice is the nation’s largest by-students, for-students 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization inspired by the premise that education should work for all students. We believe that every student deserves quality civic education—and a direct platform to impact decisions that affect their lives. Through action-based civics programs, Student Voice leads and strengthens the movement of young people taking action on issues that most impact their education. For more information about Student Voice and joining the student voice movement, visit our website at StuVoice.org and follow @Stu_Voice and #StuVoice on social media.