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A teenager’s perspective on how to tackle the problem of suicide

Trenton Borders | January 20, 2018

In a school with outstanding academic performance, other issues can linger beneath the surface. This is especially true for the Mason school district.

Over the past decade, Mason High School has seen thousands of students pass through its halls and enter the real world. In that same time frame, Mason has lost nine students to suicide. This represents an average of one suicide every year.

Mental illness is an epidemic among teenagers today, affecting an estimated 20 percent of all 13- to 20-year-olds. A study published in Pediatrics at the end of 2016 found a significant rise in teen depression over the last few years, but little to no increase in mental health treatment. This rings true at Mason.

High school senior Erin Gilliland explained that it’s not at all uncommon to know someone that has a serious mental illness. “I’ve had several friends hospitalized within the last year because of either extreme anxiety or depression,” she explained. “Mental illness is so rampant.”

Statistically, mental illness is inevitable in a school with nearly 3,500 students.

Suicide is not.

It’s been almost two months since Mason grieved the loss of a high school sophomore to suicide, and the administrative response following her death has been symptomatic of a larger problem within the administration at William Mason High School: inertia, or a failure to pursue meaningful change.

“There have been plenty of efforts by organizations within the high school to create a dialogue around suicide, yet they have been shut down or censored, rendering their efforts ineffective,” wrote Josh Mullins in his petition for the school to address mental illness at Mason. “Sadly, there is a stigma surrounding suicide. A stigma that leads to students staying quiet or not helping their friends. Mason High School continues to build upon this stigma by not taking a position and keeping very quiet about their efforts.”

Josh’s petition was launched in November and it has been signed by over 5,200 parents, faculty, and students. There has been no notable response from the school.

Let me be clear – I’m not blaming anyone for someone else’s choice to take their own life. With that said, more can be done.

A pattern has emerged: a Mason kid takes his or her life, the student body mourns, and the school offers grief counseling. After a week or two, things are back to normal and business carries on as usual. In other words, Mason tries to mitigate the damage, not address it at its roots. Their paradigm is reactive, not proactive.

Part of being proactive is understanding what causes mental illness in the first place. Students I talked to cited the stress of managing competing interests like clubs, sports, volunteering, rigorous coursework, and impossibly high expectations. Others said it might have to do with chemical imbalances that leave teens depressed and with a distorted sense of self-worth.

Many of these students want to see more done to tackle the problem. Mason junior Hannah McCollough agreed that “mental health definitely is a huge problem here.”

While she was quick to point out that it’s not ignored by the school, she contends that “…it needs to be prioritized more. It’s hard to come up with practical solutions in such a large school, but the demand for it is too important for this to be an issue that isn’t faced head-on and immediately.”

The problem with counselors is that most students don’t use them. This is where Josh Mullins hit the nail on the head: stigma. Josh argues that mental illness is seen as a bad mark, like a stain or flaw, and that it’s keeping people from getting help. There is also the concern that many students have a reluctance to open up to adults that they might not be very close to.

Mason spokeswoman Tracey Carson claimed in November that efforts were being made to raise awareness for suicide starting in seventh and eighth-grade health classes where kids will be trained to recognize the signs of depression, but units on mental illness are not new additions to the curriculum.

In either case, the signs shouldn’t have been very difficult to spot: in every one of the sophomore student’s social media profiles, there was a link to her blog where she posted poems and short prose. A cursory glance through her writing immediately reveals a history of mental health issues, slipping grades, and lost hope.

When Josh Mullins and other concerned students realized there might never be a significant response from the school administration, they decided to see what they could do to tackle the problem. They formed a student-led committee and set their sights on creating a dialogue with the administration, raising public awareness, and promoting positivity and inclusivity.

One student on the committee (who asked to have their name removed for fear of retaliation) told me that this has been anything but easy: “In my experience, it’s not only incredibly difficult to get administration’s attention, but it’s incredibly difficult to get them to take you seriously.”

While adults don’t usually take the advice of high schoolers, this Mason student argued that “…being a student puts us in a unique position to explicitly voice our concerns.”

If the administration is pursuing meaningful action, then it should work with students to get their feedback on mental health issues at Mason. If the administration is not developing a plan, then something needs to change. Proactive policies can target the problem at its source.

Reactive policies can only mop up the mess.

Trenton Borders is an 18-year-old senior at Mason High School. 

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