Healthy thoughts: AHS group hopes to expand mental health awareness on campus

Michael D. Smith
Ardmore High School students return to campus for the first day of school Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020. A small group in the leadership and management class of Lindsay Walker recently surveyed fellow students on mental health awareness and hope to present findings and recommendations to school board members next month. [Michael D. Smith/The Ardmoreite, File)

A small group of students at Ardmore High School is hoping to make a major impact in the lives of future Tigers by raising awareness of mental health issues. The students have undertaken the project this semester in hopes of presenting findings and recommendations at an upcoming school board meeting.

Lindsey Walker leads the leadership and management class of nearly two dozen and said a core group of about six students this year has taken more than a passing interest in expanding mental health awareness and resources.

“Their self expression in the classroom, it kind of pushed and motivated me to find resources outside of the classroom,” she said.

Five of the students in the group agreed that seeking help for mental health issues, especially as a teenager, may not be easy for a variety of reasons. Some worry that stigmas surrounding mental health care cause hesitation and some believe that available resources are lacking.

“We have counselors at the school, but nobody wants to talk to them because it doesn’t feel like a safe environment where you can trust people,” said Julie Anthony, a leadership and management student, adding that teens mostly confide in their own teachers rather than through more traditional methods.

“I can talk about it with other people, but I feel like in this class I”m more comfortable,” said student Perla Melchor.

This semester, the students teamed up with a former AHS student now taking classes at Murray State College to collect data from other Ardmore students. Rather than collecting anonymous data about mental health issues, however, students wanted to learn what their peers generally knew about mental health.

“We asked those in school about mental health, like ‘do you feel comfortable talking to a professional,’ ‘how often do you,’ we asked stuff like that,” said C.J. Minor, another student in the class.

Walker said that the survey responses would be used to gauge how aware the Ardmore High School student body is about mental health issues. With that data, students hope to provide recommendations to elected school leaders early next year.

Anthony said that the group’s presentation and recommendations are still coming together but hopes that the message conveys how important mental health awareness is for teenagers. “Mental health is normal,” she said. “We need to normalize it.”

Kelsea Preast hopes the project will help provide more access to mental health care on campus. “[W]e as students can take leadership in trying to give others the help they need,” she said. Minor added that early intervention in younger students should also be considered by school leaders.

This is not the first time Walker has been part of a mental health awareness project or with Ardmore High School health issues. Before becoming a teacher, she was a coordinator for the high school’s health corps and also worked with a local health collaborative in 2016.

High school is already full of unique stressors, but Walker believes that technology has provided teenagers with a drastically different set of stress than teens from 10 years ago. “This generation has a heightened sense of awareness of the world that’s around them through the advancement of technology,” she said. 

Teens also feel a sense of anxiety from social unrest and environmental disasters. Whether current affairs like Black Lives Matter or climate change, Walker said technology keeps students plugged in to social and environmental woes that have even plagued previous generations.

“It almost kind of defeats you in a way when you are younger because you don’t have the tools yet to really take it on in an effective way,” she said.

Teenagers are also experiencing a pandemic that has upended the structure of school. Some students said they don’t feel very optimistic about the near future considering so much of the current year has been put on hold during the pandemic. Others spoke about the isolation from social events taking a toll on their mental well-being

The group was hoping to make their presentation before the holidays but Walker said a recent surge in COVID-19 cases locally prompted a request to push their visit with the education board to January. The Ardmore City Schools Board of Education is scheduled to meet on Jan. 19, 2021.

Whether the group is able to institute any major change regarding mental health awareness has yet to be seen, but junior Trinidee Jefferson said the project is already having an impact on her.

“It’s making me step out of my comfort zone and giving me a chance to be a leader,” she said.