Navigate Mental Health as a Student

Vanessa Lingenfelter (2021-2022), Co-Managing Editor

Emotion is a nearly ubiquitous aspect of the human condition. Every person knows what it feels like to wake up sad every now and then, to feel overwhelming anxiety before a presentation, or to feel angry in response to a perceived insult. These emotions are exacerbated during adolescence, an infamously turbulent phase of one’s life. It is not uncommon for teenagers to experience heightened emotional responses, but what happens when these feelings begin to escalate?


According to a Pew Research Center analysis of the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 13 percent of American teens reported experiencing at least one major depressive episode within the span of a year, a significant increase from the 8 percent reported in 2007. Another Pew Research survey found that in 2018 seven out of ten U.S. teens said that anxiety and depression are major problems facing other people their age in their communities. With the teen mental health crisis only growing post-COVID, it is vital for students and teachers alike to gain a greater understanding of the issues facing teenagers today and how to cope with them.


“There is stress associated with competition for getting into and paying for school in a time where college costs are escalating rapidly,” said AP Psychology teacher Colleen Thompson, who has conducted research in the fields of Behavioral Neuroscience and Health Psychology.


One of the most common issues that high school students face is the natural stress that comes with anticipating the future, particularly as it relates to getting into and affording higher education. Tuition costs have been on a steady incline for years, and for students today the ability to afford college has become increasingly uncertain.


“Additionally, the use of social media has been linked to increasing body image issues, anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation,” said Thompson.


The correlation between time spent on social media and increasing rates of depression, anxiety, and insecurity among teens has been well studied and has been a cause of concern for researchers, parents and teenagers alike.


“While an individual can go online to find help, they can just as easily find hate and vitriol,” said Thompson. “It is easy to make matters worse by gaining and spreading misinformation online. This causes young individuals to not want to speak up, which then makes these issues less seen and recognized.”


Peer pressure and bullying also runs rampant in the lives of many young people, and with the internet many teens find themselves without an escape. On top of that, unstable and unhealthy home lives are a major source of instability in the lives of teenagers who struggle.


“Specifically in Katy, income does not necessarily equal a safe and healthy home life,” said Thompson.


If a student is struggling with their mental health, there are strategies that can be employed to help mitigate their emotional turmoil. Something as simple as taking a personal timeout can be tremendously helpful.


“[Take] 30 minutes a day to meditate, relax, breathe,” said Thompson. “It sounds silly but research shows it really does improve overall mood and well-being.”


In addition, it is extremely important for students to aim for seven to nine hours of sleep a night. Sleep deprivation has serious consequences for both physical and mental well-being. A healthy sleep schedule has consistently been evidenced to lead to drastic improvements in mood. Removing toxic influences from one’s life is helpful as well, if certain people are causing stress it is useful to distance yourself. Although there are ways to cope with a declining mental health, it can be difficult to take care of oneself while juggling school and home responsibilities.


“Make a schedule and stick to it,” said Thompson. “If you can’t get everything done in one day or one week, then you’re doing too much and you need to figure out what to remove. Be honest with yourself about your capabilities and your work ethic.”


Teachers also have a role to play when it comes to the mental well-being of their students. When a student is dealing with a mental health crisis, it can be difficult to find the right approach. Empathy for the unique situation the younger generation is facing is crucial. Listening and acknowledging a student’s feelings and experiences can go a long way, sometimes it is necessary to understand when you don’t understand. Occasionally a student will be facing more severe issues than what is apparent on the surface, and those problems may be outside of the teacher’s own experience. In which case, it is possible to reach out for assistance.


“Reach out to other teachers for general advice,” said Thompson. “We have a large facility at this school. Someone can help you if you don’t know how to help the student.”


For some students, extra support is needed to maintain their mental health. If one suspects that they may require external help in order to get their head above the water, it is advisable to seek out a mental health professional.


“The second you seriously wonder if you need help, you do,” said Thompson. “We need to normalize seeking help, instead of pushing it off.”


If a student is suffering from a debilitating mental illness, such as Major Depressive Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, etc., it is possible to request a 504 plan. Public schools are required by law to honor 504 plans, but it can be a long and arduous process.


“It unfortunately will require some meetings, and some medical documentation usually, but once a 504 has been put into place the school is by law required to follow it,” said Thompson. “The sooner this process can be initiated the sooner the student can get real help.”


The mind is complex and it can be taxing trying to keep up with it, but at the end of the day mental health is equally important as physical health and should be treated as such. External factors are not always in our control, but everyone is capable of recognizing internal problems and proactively dealing with them.


“Don’t assume things will get better or that people will change,” said Thompson. “Every moment you spend unhappily the brain is changing its wiring and it makes it more difficult to fix that biology. Fix problems now.”