Open Communication Helps Students Who Struggle with Mental Health Issues

Jan 6, 2022

High school is a time of great change and exciting opportunities. Yet, it is also a time that many teens experience poor mental health.

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy recently declared a mental health crisis among our nation’s youth, outlining the pandemic’s unprecedented impacts on the mental health of America’s youth and families, as well as the mental health issues that existed long before the pandemic.

Even before the start of the pandemic, the CDC reports that 1 in 3 high school students had experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness in 2019, a 40 percent increase since 2009. Also in 2019, approximately 1 in 6 youth reported making a suicide plan in the past year, a 44% increase since 2009.

JAMA Pediatrics Network analyzed data in 2021 and found that 1 in 5 youth are experiencing clinically elevated anxiety symptoms.

This month’s Facebook Live presented by the Erie County Anti-Stigma Coalition will highlight the state of stigma among high school students and how keeping lines of communication open can help teens achieve mental wellness. The Facebook Live is January 19 from 12 pm to 1 pm and is free and open to all community members.

“Sadly, we are experiencing a significant increase in students who are in need of services – both for mild conditions, such as anxiety, as well as more severe (e.g. depression/severe depression, trauma, grief, suicidal ideations, suicide attempts, etc.),” said Dr. Keli Koran Luchey, founder/CEO, Lucid Pathways, and counselor at Sweet Home High School in Amherst.

According to Luchey, it is vitally important that we engage in on-going communication with our youth so that it becomes normalized.

“We want them to feel as comfortable speaking about their mental health and mental illness as they should be about their physical health and illness,” she said. “It is my hope that the more we speak about it, the more comfortable they will become, and the easier it will be to address.”

Mount St. Mary Academy in Kenmore has enhanced the school’s counseling department to better meet the needs of students.

“High school is different from what the students have known as they dive into their values and beliefs,” said Jessica Gertz, MSW, school social worker. “Students form identities and explore who they are as people,” she said. “Not only are they experiencing hormonal changes, but they are also thinking about their futures and careers for the first time.”

Mount St. Mary’s has instituted Restorative Justice Training to strengthen relationships among staff and students as well as mental health training.

In terms of stigma, there is more mental health awareness and needs have been heightened by the pandemic. According to Gertz, stigma may impact parents who are hesitant to discuss their child’s mental health and students who are reluctant to talk about their struggles.

“Open communication is important, and the best results come about with constant contact between parents, school counselors, outside counselors, and their students.”

Dr. Luchey says it can be very awkward and uncomfortable for parents to talk with their teen who may be struggling.

“For many, it is fear of the unknown,” she said. “Parents may not know what to do or what to say. It is ok to articulate this fear to their child, while stressing they are determined to get them the help that is needed to feel better.

“What is most important is that they listen and communicate with love – being patient, open, non-judgemental and willing to seek assistance and support for both the child and themselves,” Luchey said.

If parents notice a significant switch in their child’s personality, they can ease into a conversation and open a line of communication,” Gertz said. “Ask them about their day, give them grace and support them. Talk about counseling and resources available at school.”

Olive Luniewski is a 14-year-old Hamburg High School freshman who has struggled with mental health issues and is an advocate for students with mental health issues.

“Not everyone, especially teens, are fortunate enough to have support, which is why I find it to be so extremely important that schools offer the proper resources to help their students,” she said. “School is a neutral environment that every child must attend. If we have administration who can give them the support they need that they may not receive at home, we will notice a huge shift in our next generation’s mental health.”

Many school districts have expanded mental health services to meet the growing needs of their students.

DiMario Bell, MS, LMHC-P, is treatment team supervisor, Wyndham Lawn Campus, a residential program of New Directions Youth and Family Services in Lockport, N.Y. He works with young people ages 12 to 18 with emotional, educational, and/or behavioral issues.

The pandemic has significantly impacted young people, and as the organization’s mental health champion, Bell says he listens, encourages teens to get involved in activities, encourages them to re-connect with their peers, and get outside. Social media also continues to have an impact on young people’s mental health.

According to Bell, social media provides access to a lot of opinions, toxic trends, resulting in many teens experiencing low self-esteem issues and depression.

“I encourage them to see value within themselves and remind them they don’t need to compare themselves to other people,” he said. “Life is the great equalizer.”

What parents and families can do to support their high school children:

  • Communicate openly and honestly, including about their values.
  • Supervise their adolescent to facilitate healthy decision-making.
  • Spend time with their adolescent enjoying shared activities.
  • Become engaged in school activities and help with homework.
  • Volunteer at their adolescent’s school.
  • Communicate regularly with teachers and administrators.

High School Freshman Shares Mental Health Journey

Olive Luniewski is a 14-year-old Hamburg High School freshman who has struggled with mental health challenges and is an advocate for students with mental health challenges.  She will be a panelist for the Facebook Live on January 19. Read her story.

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