As the focus around student mental health grows through legislation, policy changes, and continued discussion, it is becoming more apparent that support is crucial, especially in Kentucky. More and more individuals are joining the cause as awareness rises.
I truly believe that everyone understands the necessity for mental health support in the school system at its most baseline level, as it boils down to a crystallization of sanity and safety on the line. Yet, many fail to holistically process exactly why this is needed.
Let me paint you a picture from my perspective as a graduate, a sibling of two students, a child of teachers, and a volunteer for the Kentucky Department of Education.
I was hospitalized my junior year of high school for mental health intervention. Despite having missed a month of classes, my professors made me take finals I was not prepared for, resulting in the first Bs on my polished honor roll record.
Fellow students have lost countless hours of sleep acting as suicide counselors for their friends when the local resources did not pull through. A child, a 7th-grader, attempts to overdose, while another wails trying to convince them not to. After a couple of years of this, they no longer wail. The voice is wooden with experience.
Already overworked counselors, whose primary jobs are to provide direct student services such as academic counseling or social support in school, are instead facing a tidal wave of students struggling under the weight of mental health issues. The schools do not have strict mental health clinicians, and the school counselors do not have the proper training to handle the mental health issues compounded by the traumas from the unprecedented pandemic, along with the tumultuous state of the current world. Gilded hopes of students flying into top-rated colleges and excelling in their personal lives are traded for long hours, and a promise to attempt to even get to the future.
My siblings, as smart as they are, still wavered in the face of online learning and self-tutoring during the lockdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. My sister lost her elementary school experience, my brother never felt the adventure of middle school. They got tired – tired of death, illness, and quiet isolation in the years meant for play, friendships and adventure. Teachers and parents gave it their best, but it did not stop the sleepless nights, anxiety attacks and tears that should have never fallen.
To say that this is a crisis is an understatement. Never has mental health support for students been more crucial than it is right now. It is not a matter of luxury, nor is it a matter of pity. Mental health support is a bare minimum, a quality of life indicator, a need. This insistence from students, parents, teachers, and more is rising with the fight, because more and more people are understanding.
The Kentucky Department of Education Commissioner’s Student Advisory Council, of which I am a part, has been tirelessly working to improve mental health access for students. A subgroup called the Student Mental Health Initiative worked on roundtable discussions within 10 regions of the state, collecting data from young students to put into data-informed recommendations that were presented to numerous educational groups with Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman. From there, the students have headlined briefings with a variety of professionals, taken their work to their own personal schools and lives, and recently presented at the State Capitol.
With recognition from Gov. Andy Beshear, the team sat in on the ceremonial signing of a bill they fought for, House Bill 44, which allows school districts to make mental health days excused absences. The voices of hundreds of students across Kentucky fueled this fire, and it keeps burning.
Therefore, this fire will not be put out until Kentucky changes.
No more students left behind.
No more panic attacks in the school bathrooms.
No more loss of childhood.
No more children growing up too soon.
No more teachers doing more than just teaching.
No more punishment for taking mental health breaks.
No more ignorance, ill support or pushing to the side.
Student mental health matters. It matters now.