Mental health tools provided to Ardmore Middle School students during Wednesday event
Several times throughout her address to Ardmore Middle School students on Wednesday, Amy Ortloff had to pause to collect herself. Her voice echoed through the gymnasium and only broke a handful of times as she bluntly spoke about one of the most sensitive subjects for humans to consider.
Her son, Ryan, took his own life in 2017 at the age of 17. The Madill mother did not share details about her son’s death but rather her journey learning to cope with post-traumatic stress disorder and the weight of losing a child in such a tragic way.
Her story is how AMS started its “Hear for You” day, a collaboration of teachers, counselors and some high school students to promote mental health awareness and give coping tools to adolescents. Counselor Tina Mays organized the event to do something unique for her middle school students and give them more than a lecture on mental health.
“We’re giving them the tools on how to deal with that and it’s not just us talking about it or having a guest speaker come in and say ‘hey, this happened to me,’” Mays said.
After the speaker concluded, Mays said students were then divided by grade level and each level was provided access to a licensed professional counselor. Teachers and volunteers from Ardmore High School also led small workshops to teach healthy coping mechanisms.
With the weight of a pandemic continuing to bear down on students, Mays and other administrative staff at AMS wanted to recognize the extra level of stress facing their students. The 19-year educator – 14 years spent as an Ardmore High School counselor – wanted Wednesday’s event to go beyond the common scope of a school counselor.
“I think we’re giving them tools. Typically, we talk about things that are wrong but we never really equip people to go out and handle whatever it is they’re going through,” she said.
Along with professional counselors, small breakout sessions allowed students to explore music therapy, art therapy, and other healthy outlets for stress. Mays said middle school students are in a unique place in life because of so many changes happening with their bodies and minds.
“The one thing about the middle school kids that I've discovered is they're changing and they don’t know how to express themselves well,” she said. “They’re going through that process of puberty and they have a hard time expressing themselves or really understanding how to process how they feel.”
Mental health is a topic regularly considered by educators in Ardmore and the pandemic has had both direct and indirect impacts on mental health at Ardmore City Schools. Superintendent Kim Holland said the school had partnered with Donnell Cox, of Sara’s Project, for many years until his death from COVID-19 earlier this year.
The school has since sought new resources to provide mental health education to Ardmore students, and Holland said he supports the initiative undertaken by Mays at the middle school despite the sensitive nature of suicide.
“We’ve had to make sure that our kids know there are other options. It is a heavy subject but I think Tina’s done a pretty good job of preparing speakers and teachers that will be sitting in the rooms,” Holland said.
While Mays said she was grateful for a grant from the Southern Oklahoma Library System that helped provide a speaker and materials needed for the event, she was most excited about having access to multiple licensed counselors to help students further process the story shared by the speaker.
Another exciting part of Mays organizing “Hear for You” was the willingness of teachers to cooperate and share their own experiences.
“One of the most amazing things, and it makes me so proud to be an Ardmore Middle School counselor and to be part of this team, is when I brought this to their attention, they started volunteering right and left,” said Mays.
Making mental health resources available to student is a focus for Ardmore City Schools but Holland admitted that the district can do better to provide resources to staff. The sources of stress in the lives of students and teachers extends beyond the pandemic and Holland said stressors can be timeless – like social or academic pressure – and timely.
“One of the specific things was the murder of Mr. Floyd,” said Holland, referring to George Floyd and his murder by a Minnesota police officer in May 2020. “We’ve had kids with a whole lot of fear and anger,” he said.
Mays said the end of the day Wednesday was scheduled to allow AMS teachers to come together for a debriefing and further discuss the day’s event. While a first for AMS, Mays believes that “Hear for You” could be a regular occurrence to keep middle school students well equipped for the ugly side of life.
“I just feel like this is something that we can carry out, we can continue to do. We may change to tools that we give them but I think we’ll still talk about these things because they’re so relevant,” said Mays.
This story has been updated to correct information about the source of a grant that provided resources for the mental health event