Picture of a smiling young woman.

Solyana Mesfin

Students and peers know me as a funny and lively student. Education leaders across the state know me as a boundary-breaking student with a bright future. Finally, teachers know me as the student who requires monthly letters sent home regarding unsatisfactory grades. 

My name is Solyana Mesfin and I am the first student to serve on the Kentucky State Board of Education. I also live with severe, diagnosed depression and anxiety. 

There was nothing more that I feared than to have those two facts about my life in the same paragraph. Depression and anxiety was something that I felt could ruin my reputation, belittle me as a representative and make me fragile in a space that has no room for fragility. 

I made sure to live two separate lives. I was a struggling student in the classroom, but a powerful outspoken student in the boardroom. 

It wasn’t always like this, but many factors led up to it.

In school, I was always the student who avoided eye contact with teachers to reduce the likelihood of participation. I was the student whose heart beat out her chest when discussions were taking place. I entered each classroom with fear and sometimes shame. Despite this, I remained a “model” student. I was in the top 1% of each class, was a pivotal athlete in several sports and prioritized community involvement. 

As I entered high school, questions about my positionality intensified my feelings of anxiety. I remained the only Black student in all of my classes. At school, I wasn’t expected to progress further than the bare minimum and most definitely was not supported in my aspirations. 

During times of struggle, I couldn’t confide in those around me out of lack of community and fear of exclusion. I was forced to adapt to an uncomfortable and mentally depleting environment. These experiences were the beginning of many race-related self-consciousness and doubts. 

I took that baggage with me as I entered student advocacy and education. I inherently belittled my contributions and criticized my every move. My self criticisms soon turned my passion into a hassle. 

Like so many others, the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated my mental health struggles. Isolation, grief and stress were at the forefront of my daily thoughts. Those feelings became so persistent they affected everything I did. Soon enough, my grades slipped drastically and I had little to no motivation to do anything. Life soon became a continuous cycle of succumbing to these struggles. 

As the school year continued, my mental health declined severely to where it became a detriment to my physical health. Most days, I couldn’t get up to go to school. The combination of depressive episodes, fear and stagnation made it extremely difficult to feel worthy in any space I entered. I suffered silently because I believed I had no one to turn to. I despised the thought of seeking help because I convinced myself that nobody would understand the true nature of my pain. 

In the midst of barely navigating school during 2020, I was appointed to the board of education as the inaugural student member. 

As the first student, I put it upon myself to be revolutionary and live up to the title. I made sure that whatever I did during my term, I would maintain a strong and powerful presence. I ignored my struggles in order to portray a successful persona while behind the scenes, I struggled daily with just being a student. 

After years of untreated symptoms and emotional suppression, I had the privilege of admittance to a psychiatric hospital. Through Jefferson County’s partnership, patients can receive a therapeutic educational environment, accomplishing a specialized version of academic standards and intensive psychiatric evaluations and support. During my four-week stay, I was able to be placed on medication and therapy. This is not the reality for every county or even every congressional district.

In this difficult time, we need access to mental health services for every student. This is a fundamental goal every district, counselor, teacher and student should strive to achieve. We need to address the barriers that make it difficult for students to receive support. 

My depression and anxiety made me feel ignored, disregarded and alone. Even though that might not have been the reality, that is the message we are sending to many students. The stigma that lingers in our community is an outstanding damage to anyone experiencing signs of mental illness. 

Mental illness is in every school building, profession and walk of life. It is not avoidable, nor is it something we can bear to ignore for longer, especially given the pandemic. This may strike you as every other call to action, but I urge you to take away this. 

  1. Our contribution to society may only be controlled by our willingness. If our systems continue to prioritize our contributions over our well-being, then they are a contributor to our decline. 
  2. My mental health journey is NOT unique. There are thousands of other students and education stakeholders experiencing similar struggles. 
  3. Anyone has the power to influence our system. It doesn’t matter where you stand in education, your voice and relentless work has the power to shift perspectives. 

I share my story in hopes of convincing others to recognize the severity of not addressing mental health. I need you to start the conversation. 

Addressing mental illness is not a one-step implementation process. We have to make our resources as diverse as our students. But most importantly, we cannot continue to only provide help for students who come forward. I hid my mental illness for five years before seeking help, and other students have hidden their struggles for longer. 

We need action, not words. Show us that you are making an effort to willingly support students. Educate yourself, advocate for policies, establish programs, engage in discussion. There are so many avenues to becoming a truly receptive and reliable education stakeholder. 

A supportive, mental health responsive school building looks like making the wellbeing of the students and staff a top priority. It is equitably affirming to actively seek updated and effective resources, receiving guidance directly from students about best implementation practices and making sure no student is left out. We need to make school a safe place by shifting the narrative and providing access to trained professionals. Most importantly, the actions done to support students’ mental health has to be consistent. This isn’t a quarterly or semesterly approach, but rather a daily priority. 

There are many different resources and supports you can provide for students. All I ask is to get to know the student body’s needs and concerns and offer intensive support. Kentucky is a diverse state with different needs for different people and areas, and our mental health approach has to reflect that. 

To my fellow students, your story is valid and worthy of action. Advocating for mental health is a fight worth pursuing. Please seek support if and when needed. Always remember to prioritize your well-being, even when it feels like society says not to. 

How to get help

If you or someone you know may be struggling with mental illness, you can seek treatment referrals through SAMHSA’s National Helpline by calling (800) 662-4357 or texting 43578 (HELP4U). You also can get information in English and Spanish by calling (800) 487-4889 any time day or night.

Solyana Mesfin is a senior at Eastern High School (Jefferson County). She also is a member of the Commissioner’s Student Advisory Council and served as the first ex-officio student member of the Kentucky Board of Education from 2020 to 2022.