Submitted by North Thurston Public Schools
Staying connected during the pandemic has been a challenge on the mental health of adults, teens, and children. Emergency departments saw a significant increase in the number of children’s mental health-related visits in 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“The world is in the midst of a traumatic reawaking following the pandemic,” said Leslie Van Leishout, director of student support at North Thurston Public Schools. “Without the supports needed to deal with mental health stresses, those wounds will last a lifetime.”
In addition to school counselors, the district provides a variety of supports for its students around mental health. There are licensed Mental Health Specialists assigned to each of the district’s 22 schools. Their job is to provide individualized mental health support and crisis intervention to students referred by the school counselor.
Each year the district also runs a mental health awareness campaign, including posters and social media. This was a result of a School Board Community Conversation where the topic was resiliency. One of the results of that meeting was the recommendation to help remove the social stigma attached to mental health, and inform students, staff, and parents about available.
“As we transition our students back to in-person learning, it will be imperative that we have proactive and supportive measures in place to support our students and their families from a mental health perspective,” said Dr. Jennifer Thomas, a registered nurse and nursing faculty, a mother of five, and school board director for North Thurston Public Schools. “The need for interdisciplinary collaboration, peer to peer support, and a solid plan for educating our youth, faculty, staff, and families on mental illness must occur to decrease stigmatization and increase awareness and treatment.”
Students in North Thurston High School’s Renaissance Club took the School Board’s effort to heart and banded together to start their own campaign. “Not only do we want to help spread acceptance and awareness of mental health amongst our peers, but we also want to provide resources, so students have a place to reach out or find help,” said Annie Tippetts, a senior at North Thurston High School. Renaissance is a club and class where students focus on school climate and culture.
The suggestion for the school-based campaign came from Katie VandenBerg, a counselor at North Thurston High School. She had been approached about the idea by someone at the district office to help facilitate the effort pre-COVID, but with remote learning it looked to be a small effort. Then things shifted.
“With the return to in-person learning, we had the opportunity to do more in terms of visuals/posters and activities,” VandenBerg said. “I didn’t know what or how we would do this, but we had the opportunity, so I talked to another staff member (teacher and club advisor, Ryan Aufort) and a group of students. Truly, the seed was planted, and the energy of this group of students made the project grow!”
With a focus on the power of mental wellbeing, educating about mental health, and providing resources for people who may need or know people who need support, the students planned and carried out activities, which included:
- “Wear Green Day” to Support Mental Health Awareness
- The green ribbon is the international symbol for mental health awareness
- Green signifies new life, new growth, and new beginnings.
- “Give One/Take One” Interactive Post-It Poster
- Power of our words and how they impact each other.
- Tear-away flyers with mental health resources
- Digital posters on TVs in commons area/lunch space
- Friday Advisory Lessons with a focus on Mental Health Awareness and Social Emotional Learning
VandenBerg and Aufort are proud of the efforts of their students to help others with mental health and wellness, and School Board member Dr. Thomas believes the school system can do even more.
“The need for more public health nursing within our school systems is a must. As a researcher, I have looked at mental health and wellness within the adolescent population and can absolutely attest to the impact that the school environment can have to support students and families,” Thomas said. She also believes we need to look at mental health through a diversity lens. “There have been many global, national, and community events that have impacted many of our students, including our underrepresented and minority groups. Let’s all come together to create an environment that supports mental health for everyone!”