Faribault High School juniors Maria Pierce and Bennett Wolff believe mental health is becoming more and more acceptable to talk about.
But there’s still work to be done, so the two friends, both DECA members working on a Community Awareness project, decided to spearhead a Mental Health Awareness Night from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Tuesday in the FHS north gym.
“I want our community to know it’s OK to ask for help,” said Wolff.
Added Pierce: “It’s OK to talk about [mental health], it’s not taboo.”
Wolff and Pierce worked with Mallory Fuchs, chemical health specialist at FHS, to pool together resources that could be made available at the mental health fair, which takes place during the double header for basketball against Northfield.
Attendees can visit the different booths from community partners like Healthy Impact, Fitness in Motion and Fernbrook Family Center. Each booth offers a different take on mental health — the Paradise Center for the Arts will show the impact of the arts on the mind, and Fuchs will bring in service dogs in training to show the impact of pets.
“I think it’s pretty neat that the students themselves are leading this,” said Fuchs. “That says a lot about our students in the high school, that they want to be involved and lead a healthier community.”
Pierce and Wolff agree they’d like to see the topic of mental health addressed more often in the classroom. In particular, Pierce said she wants students to be more aware of ways to cope with stress, depression and anxiety. Wolff pointed out that a lack of understanding could lead teens to abuse alcohol.
“I think as teens, there’s a lot of coping with that,” said Wolff.
Fuchs, who counsels students one-on-one and occasionally offers presentations in the classroom, agreed that alcohol abuse and mental health issues often go hand-in-hand. A lot of times, she said what students need the most is a space to talk about their feelings. She encourages parents to facilitate open conversations with their children and be involved in their lives.
“I encourage kids to find something they really enjoy and do something for themselves that’s positive,” said Fuchs. “… They talk about how they experience a lot of stress, but some of them don’t know how to deal with it.”
Stress levels for students could easily skyrocket the next few days at FHS, as it’s finals week. To help students keep their mental health in check, Pierce and Wolff helped Fuchs plan a gratitude challenge, a compliment jar and a coloring contest for the upcoming days.
A psychologist’s perspective
Eric Lundin, a master’s level psychologist who works for Rice County Social Services, has experience counseling both youth and adults.
He listed a number of signs of depression for parents to spot in their children, including changes in behavior or physical symptoms like headaches, backaches, stomachaches and even sore joints. If a teen apologizes frequently or feels guilty, these can also be signs of depression.
“Because kids can’t always express those sad emotions, it’s important we allow them a lot of space to be able to talk as much as possible, and not be too quick to solve their problems,” said Lundin. “Sometimes when a child is focusing on one event over and over again, it may not seem like a big deal to the parent but it could be a very big deal to the child. So that could be a symptom of depression.”
If these signs become apparent, Lundin said the next step for parents is to talk to the child’s general medical doctor so he or she can make a referral to the clinic. There, the child can take a further assessment to determine the level of depression at hand.
On a personal level, Lundin encourages parents to make sure their children feel safe and loved and listened to — not judged for their feelings or thoughts.
“One of the things that happens is, parents don’t remember what it’s like to have been in high school,” said Lundin. “Even though we believe we remember, we don’t. We have forgotten a long time ago the stress of being an adolescent.”
Today’s teens deal with one specific stressor their parents didn’t grow up with: social media. Ludin said the comparison factor associated with social media can especially strain teens’ confidence.
According to Lundin, depression rates among teens can reach as high as 60%. One in four teens will experience an anxiety disorder, and he said research indicates mental health problems are a growing concern for teenage girls especially. The suicide rate for teens is also at an all-time high, with 20% seriously considering it each year.
These statistics are startling, but there is good news.
“I think there is less stigma around mental health,” said Lundin. “We’re in the midst of a public health crisis around depression and suicide, so I think any time we can get the word out about mental health, it’s important.”