Photo from Student Advisory Council meeting 9.26.23

Members of the Kentucky Department of Education’s Commissioner’s Student Advisory Council meet on Sept. 26, 2023. (Photo by Joe Ragusa, Sept. 26, 2023)

Content warning: This article discusses suicide. If you or anyone you know is struggling, please contact the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.

(FRANKFORT, KY) – The Kentucky Department of Education’s (KDE) Commissioner’s Student Advisory Council discussed ways to improve the school environment on Sept. 26 during the council’s first meeting of the new school year.

Michelle Sircy, program coordinator for comprehensive school counseling in KDE’s Office of Teaching and Learning, led the council in a “Mindful Minute” activity where members addressed situations that make them anxious or stressed, such as upcoming tests or deadlines.

“Those negative thoughts kind of hijack our brains and we’re not sure what to do with them,” said Sircy. “We’ve got to get them calmed down.”

Sircy led council members in a series of stress-relieving exercises before discussing Suicide Prevention Month with council members, seeking feedback on what districts could be doing more of to assist with suicide prevention.

Seth Langford, a 10th-grade student at J. Graham Brown School (Jefferson County), said it is difficult getting counseling services through school.

Justin Dunning, a 12th-grade student at Lyon County High School, also expressed difficulty getting mental health services because of staffing issues.

“It’s just hard to get the time to actually talk about it, and you don’t know who to talk to, and you’ve just got to wait and wait,” said Dunning.

Other students mentioned the need to bolster support staff for students and update the messaging surrounding suicide prevention. Ava Benson, a 12th-grade student at Henderson County High School, said more steps need to be taken to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health.

“The video that we were presented this year, it did not refer to suicide as suicide; it referred to it as someone killing themselves,” said Benson.

Benson said the discussion needs to be reframed so people understand that depression is an illness and people don’t have as much control over it as others may perceive.

Council members also were led in a series of activities from Sources of Strength by Judi Vanderhaar, a program consultant in KDE’s Office of Continuous Improvement and Support.

Sources of Strength is a strengths-based suicide prevention program that engages the power of student creativity and peer influence to support positive mental health, promote well-being, help-seeking, healthy activities and a sense of belonging among youth within a school. The program has shown evidence of preventing suicide, violence, bullying and substance misuse.

“It’s more about positive social-norming and promoting help-seeking behavior and promoting all of the sources of strength can we turn to when we are struggling,” said Vanderhaar. “Because stress and struggle are a part of everyone’s life … it’s really kind of a universal school-culture-changing initiative.”

The exercises included an overview of the eight core Sources of Strength – physical health, mental health, family support, positive friends, mentors, health activities, generosity and spirituality – along with group discussions and an activity where students made a slight change to their appearance to see if other students knew what to look for.

“I hope it got them thinking about their importance as a leader in their school to nurture help, hope and strength and possibly bringing the program to their school. We need to normalize the stressors that everybody faces and also remember that we have a lot of sources of support, because kids are walking through a very difficult world,” said Vanderhaar. “I don’t think we talk enough about the various sources of strength and support that we can pull from.”

Student Voice

The Commissioner’s Student Advisory Council typically takes on a project to present near the end of the school year, and the council spent some time during the Sept. 26 meeting discussing what they will work on this year.

Raima Dutt, a 12th-grade student at duPont Manual High School (Jefferson County), said this year’s project will focus on how to bolster student voice.

“This could be like a research project across the state where we interview students at different schools in different counties,” said Dutt, “or this could be maybe something more like a researcher project, like a policy paper, on what ‘effective’ means for elevating student voice.”

The council split into two groups and discussed how the project may take form, then reconvened to share their thoughts. Council members will continue working on the project throughout the year. No deadline has been set for the final report.

During the 2022-2023 school year, the Commissioner’s Student Advisory Council produced a report on school safety that members shared with state lawmakers and other community members.

The next Commissioner’s Student Advisory Council meeting is scheduled for Oct. 18.