Members of the Commissioner’s Student Advisory Council (SAC) shared their reactions to the Student Mental Health Action Summit roundtables hosted by the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE), in partnership with Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman’s office, during their meeting on Sept. 30.
Heather Dearing, deputy chief of staff for Coleman, joined the SAC meeting to discuss what she has been hearing throughout the series of roundtable discussions.
So far, over 300 students have signed up to attend the 7 events that have been held across Kentucky. There will be 3 more events held in the near future. During the discussions, students have reported heightened depression and anxiety from the COVID-19 pandemic as well as other factors. There also were reports of bullying both in and out of schools.
Students expressed a need for better and updated mental health trainings for students and staff, and more trust and confidentiality between staff and students when it comes to mental health issues.
One of the most common suggestions from the events has been not only the need for more access to mental health therapists and clinicians, but also the need to simply listen to students and more discussions about mental health, which will lead to reducing the stigma around mental health and seeking treatment for those issues.
“It’s reaffirming to hear that that’s a need and a want because it means that we are recognizing that it is important,” said Dearing. “The impact of the recommendations and the answers being consistent across all regions has been very powerful to me.”
Sam Smith, a senior at Daviess County High School and SAC member, helped facilitate two of the mental health roundtables.
“I think both of them have been really spectacular,” said Smith. “It really feels like it is student-led through the student facilitators and I also feel that they think their voice is going to make an impact.”
SAC member Solyana Mesfin, a senior at Eastern High School (Jefferson County), said anonymity played a large role in students opening up during the discussions she facilitated.
“Students said they didn’t know anybody within the call and so they could be completely themselves and honest about their struggles because they know they’re never going to see those students again,” said Mesfin. “I think that speaks a lot to the culture that our schools have around mental health.”
Mesfin also spoke to how mental health issues can be different for different groups of people and suggested more specific mental health summits, such as for students of color and those who might be marginalized.
SAC member Alexandra Perry, a junior at Ignite Institute (Boone County), said it was helpful to see that many students at the roundtables were going through similar problems to each other.
“I just think it’s amazing that we can all focus on our similarities regarding mental health and be able to make more policy changes and improve mental health in our school,” said Perry.
Findings from the mental health roundtable discussions will be presented during the 2021 Kentucky Education Summit on Nov. 1-2.
Education Commissioner Jason E. Glass also joined the SAC to discuss the recent changes to school operations during the pandemic due the passage of Senate Bill 1 (SB1).
One piece of SB1 required the Kentucky Department for Public Health (DPH) to create a model “Test to Stay” policy. Test to stay policies allow students to avoid quarantine requirements through daily COVID-19 screenings.
SAC member Dyllan Tipton, a senior at Spencer County High School, said his local school board met last Monday and implemented a test to stay model in his district.
“I really support this model. I think it’s a great way to keep our kids in school,” said Tipton.
Tipton said his district is looking to hire about five people to facilitate COVID tests to students, and if the student tests negative they are allowed to attend school that day.
Anastasia Panaretos, a junior at South Oldham High School, said she has heard from other students that they appreciate the test to stay program because of the access to rapid tests.
“We found it to be very effective, especially if you’re on a sports team or something like that. People can go get tested before they have a game if it’s necessary,” said Panaretos.
Other students on the council expressed their general frustration with the challenges they have faced while attending school during a pandemic.
Spandana Pavuluri, a junior at duPont Manual High School (Jefferson County), said that while she feels her schools has handled masking and COVID-19 testing well, she has heard from students across the state where masking is not required.
“A lot of them have immunocompromised family members,” said Pavuluri. “It is so hard to focus on school and do well academically when you’re worried about whether you’re putting one of the people you love in danger.”
The Commissioner’s Student Advisory Council is set to meet next on Oct. 19.