Content note: This essay contains mentions of suicide and suicidal ideation.
As early as middle school, when one of my friends died by suicide, I witnessed what would become a pattern of reactive mental health care, rather than preventative counseling services and support in schools. Following a traumatic event or in times of high stress, teachers and counselors would say "reach out if you need anything." That was the extent of the support offered.
Over the course of my education, there have been at least four students within my district who died by suicide—friends or friends of friends. Though I've seen some people's mindsets about mental health change, I have yet to see any structural change within our schooling to prevent these deaths or even reduce the stresses that school creates. Counselors come in the day after the incident, teachers become lenient with deadlines for about a week, and then everything returns to normal. It is routine. But for students, it's traumatic and will follow us for the rest of our lives. To combat the ongoing mental health crisis, young people ask for increased funding for mental health in schools, more mental health education to decrease stigma, and safe spaces to talk about mental health in our communities.
By surrounding students with constant comparisons, numerical values that suggest "you can do better," and toxic mindsets that emphasize grades over well-being, the school system has only augmented pressures and stresses that come from the schooling process. Not only did I feel inferior when my grades weren't perfect, I felt like a disappointment to my peers, teachers, and family, which crushed my self-esteem. This feeling, unfortunately, is common among students my age. That's a huge problem.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, I was no longer able to separate home from school. Every second of every day was dedicated to schoolwork. Even after schools resumed in-person learning, this mindset never changed. Teachers started assigning more work, and naturally, the pressures to succeed increased as I was inching closer to applying to colleges. The combination of a heightened workload with internal and external pressures overwhelmed me. I continued to neglect my needs and resorted to various forms of self-harm.
In Georgia, the amount of young people ages three to 17 who reported experiencing anxiety and depression rose from 8.5 percent from 2016 to 10.4 percent by 2020. Moreover, there continue to be disparities in mental health resources and the de-stigmatization of mental illness for young people of color and LGBTQ+ youth. 2019's Georgia Student Health Survey showed that almost 40,000 students in Georgia reported attempted suicide. I was so suffocated by compounding pressures that I too almost ended my own life. At this point, I could no longer fight this battle alone, so I sought help from my school counselors.
After numerous appointment cancellations, I finally got a few scheduled meetings. Unfortunately, only one of the counselors seemed interested in the conversation surrounding my mental health. Other appointments felt impersonal—manifesting as short conversations ending in counselors looking visibly stressed. Ultimately, they made me feel like a burden. I knew the counselors had to respond to both academic and emotional needs, mainly prioritizing academics, so helping students with their mental health issues was a difficult task—one that required more time and energy. I could not blame them because I knew their department was overworked, understaffed, and underfunded. As of 2021, the required counselor-to-student ratio in Georgia is one counselor for every 450 students—well over the ratio suggested by the American School Counselors Association, which is one counselor for every 250 students. Even though I understood their unfair position, I also knew that I deserved help and support in my moment of crisis.
I'm not alone in needing more mental health support at school than what I received. Youth mental health overall worsened throughout the pandemic. Access to care before and during the pandemic was already challenging due to "shortage of providers, inadequate insurance coverage, high costs and insufficient information," according to a report from Voices for Georgia's Children. The report also stated that schools can connect young people to mental and behavioral health resources, but pointed out what students know all too well: there often isn't enough support to go around.
And lack of support in schools often means lack of support in general. Mental health problems are often stigmatized, especially in racially marginalized communities, which leads students struggling to access mental health care outside of school. This can result in coping mechanisms that can be dangerous and even deadly. If schools prioritized equitable mental health care and student needs, students would not feel the need to suffer in silence nor would they feel obligated to bear the burden of depression or anxiety on their own.
IN THEIR OWN WORDS: THE YOUTH MENTAL HEALTH CRISIS
Living with a disability and navigating an impossible system drove one Georgia student to activism in their quest for radical and compassionate solutions—including more equity and inclusion for disabled young people in health care, education, and society.
School is some students' only safe space to talk about mental health. Those in power should make a conscious effort to improve the effectiveness and productivity of school counseling departments by increasing funding and resources provided in public schools. According to the American School Counselor Association, 76 percent of its members are white, and schools where half the student body are students of color have less access to counselors in general. Students have proposed solutions like additional funding for counselors, rather than School Resource Officers (SROs), as well as excused mental health days. Of the 12 states that let students take mental health days from school, Georgia is not one of them.
I am part of the Georgia Youth Justice Coalition, and through this organization, I have not only learned how widespread the issue of mental health in Georgia schools is, but I've also had the chance to advocate for changes related to mental health support in our schools. Our advocacy team has outlined clear priorities that would help, including a specific funding allocation for social work within public education and an investment in workforce development for social workers and counselors.
It takes collaboration and open communication between parents, teachers, students, counselors, and lawmakers. Conversations about mental health, actively dismantling stigma, and sharing resources should happen before students are in crisis—and from the time they are young. This will not only improve the mindsets of students and create a welcoming, safe environment at school, but it will save lives.
As I prepare to go off to college, I will continue to dedicate myself to advocating for better accessibility to mental health care, as well as promoting empowering and encouraging mindsets for young people. Though I will always try to create safe spaces for open conversations surrounding mental health, I cannot fight this fight alone. here have to be fundamental changes put in place to better the collective mental health of current and future generations. I urge everyone to open conversation with friends and loved ones about mental health, encourage others to seek help if they need it, and most importantly, take care of yourself and those that you love.
This essay is part of a series curated by author, journalist, and youth mentor Rainesford Stauffer. In Their Own Words: The Youth Mental Health Crisis was made possible through the sponsorship of The Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism.