Letter – A Note to Mental Health

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Dear School Committee,

First, I would like to congratulate Ms. Dockser and Ms. Borawski on their respective re-elections; they are both pillars of our community.

It has certainly been a harrowing year for Reading Public Schools. The administration has managed to survive when it seems the whole town is against them. If you told a Reading resident in the early 2000s that we would have a level three school in our district, you would’ve been told, “You’re crazy, our schools are great.” The purpose of this letter is not to tarnish RPS. Personally I believe the administrators and those otherwise involved in RPS are working as hard as they can to make the best decisions possible. As a recent alumni, I am aware that there are teachers in our district that are capable and dedicated individuals. Unfortunately there is one area that myself, and many around me, feel the district has not been properly addressing. A formative solution to this problem would lead to increased college acceptances, student and district success, and pleased parents.

That issue is mental health.

As you are aware, in the 2014-15 school year, 55 students from RMHS alone were hospitalized for suicidal tendencies and general mental health issues.1 The town has taken notice of the issue by overhauling the behavioral health program into a multi-tiered system, including mindfulness strategies on the elementary level. This change has included the education of many school faculty to properly recognize signs of poor mental health. Unfortunately, despite these changes, it seems that the trend of hospitalization is only increasing. As a student, I have seen multiple friends and acquaintances disappear for weeks at a time only to come back worse off than before. How do we change this? How can you change the nature of the teenage mind?

The answer: you can’t.

What can be done? Well as cited in a series by NPR about mental health, the best way to prevent a mental health crisis is to build a “multi-tiered system of supports.”2 In a high school of 1200, it is easy for students to drift from class to class without receiving recognition or being able to make a connection with their teachers. I was fortunate enough to build relationships with my teachers, which saved me during my high school years. But what of the introvert? I request that Reading consider building a team initiative, not just for “at risk youth” and not just for the overwhelmed, but for everyone. Adam Bakr does a fantastic job of trying to engage with the majority of students, but it cannot be only him. We need every faculty member to be on the same page, a good morning every morning. For example, while many teachers leave immediately after school, perhaps there could be instituted office hours and better engagement in clubs that promote social and emotional health without ostracization. More often than not, my friends found a custodian, named Joe, to genuinely care about our days more than our teachers. People like Joe are the ones who are going to make RPS a safer and more stable community.

Even without appropriate funding, it does not mean our schools must fail and succumb to more hospitalizations. One small school in Oklahoma that spends only $7,605 per pupil per year, where a teacher with two decades experience earns only $50,000, is finding more success than their wealthier counterparts.3 The superintendent tracks down drop outs and convinces the majority to continue their education, educators make students the first in their family going to college, and the STEM programs rival those of elite schools. How do they make this possible on such a tight budget? They have created a sense of family, made their schools into “community schools.” In order to create a school where students are successful and high performing, there needs to be a sense of community- something reliable for students who lack reliable home lives.

“The walls were festooned with family photos under a banner that said, “We Are All Family.’”

Within our own state, a school in Lexington- which I can admit is a wealthier community- has had to take measures to increase mental health awareness. Dr. Doherty has cited that Reading students succumb to mental crises because of high pressure regarding college, a parallel that exists in Lexington. They instituted a “Rock Room” for students to decompress, taken away class rankings, and set up workshops on managing anxiety.4 Unfortunately, Lexington did not take measures until a student became overwhelmed by her mental illness and took her own life. Reading does not have to wait for tragedy to occur before changing the conversation. It is encouraging to see a speaker on mindfulness scheduled to come to Joshua Eaton, but the initiative was more strongly proposed by parents than educators. We need to make these speakers a more common occurrence so that students are equipped with the tools to get help and help others. Students often fear authority and the repercussions of appearing weak; workshops could properly dispel this fear. Active Minds, a group aiming to “change the conversation about mental health”, and SWEAR, a locally based organization started by high schoolers to prevent rape and sexual assault, have several speakers available for booking. While the expense of a speaker may not seem viable, it is a long term investment. An additional and cheaper solution would be calling back alumnus to speak about their mental health management and how to lead a successful life. I can recall when Travis Roy spoke during my time at Parker about how he could still lead a fulfilling life despite the hardships he endured. Thanks to his conversation, along with others, it was rare to see a student bullied in RPS. Openly discussing mental health has been proven to result in a similar outcome.

Beyond community and open discussion, ending the negative stigma of which RMHS students and faculty view mental health is the key to maintaining district stability. This is critical to the success and health of our children. Education is obviously the main focus of RPS, so let’s educate our students about mental health. We have made classes dedicated to “health issues”, a graduation requirement, but when I was enrolled in said class we had to skip the issue due to the immaturity of upperclassmen. Excluding names, a member of the class who identifies as transgender was excited when our teacher mentioned gender, sexuality, and mental health would be our next unit of study. As this student started expressing himself, a handful of students openly spoke of their discomfort and disbelief in his gender identity. They started directing their ignorance toward the student in a hateful manner. This eventually erupted into what I would consider a verbal confrontation against the transgender individual. Due to pure outrage, I stood up and politely told our teacher I could not be in such a toxic environment. Then I asked if the attacked student and I may leave the classroom. The teacher permitted it and apologized for the mishap, but she is in no way to blame. It is a fault in our curriculum and school environment that these students were raised to believe it was okay to terrorize another student simply because they are different. This is especially concerning when “ almost 50% of transgender youth have seriously thought about suicide, and 25% reported that they have made a suicide attempt. ”5 We are incredibly lucky that this student is still with us but this story should be a wake up call to all educators and administrators. Our curriculum needs to change and our environment needs to change before we lose another student- to suicide, to drugs, to anything at all.

In order to properly reflect the wide landscape of mental health illnesses, the language and content of “Health Issues” must change. While there are brief mentions of suicide and depression, these are often depicted through the fantasy of film rather than honest discussion and true visual aid. Only discussing these two terms omits various other disorders students may be diagnosed with or encounter in their day to day lives. Mood disorders are often greatly ignored and joked about in the halls of RMHS. With derogatory language, students will refer to one another as “bipolar” or “OCD” without knowing the serious nature of such a claim. For someone suffering from any of these disorders, there is a sense of isolation and fear that they will be verbally attacked or discriminated by others. Creating a safe space where students can freely discuss these issues could potentially eliminate the uncomfortable environment that has been engendered at Reading Memorial High School. Adding this content would be relatively simple. Hank Green has an online series, “Crash Course: Psychology”, with several episodes focused on mood, anxiety, and dissociative disorders. This service would be free of charge to RPS.6 The videos are filled with content that could be discussed over several days. This change would be instrumental and perhaps should be applied to “Decisions” or even a middle school health class to start educating and promoting a healthier environment earlier on.

I urge you to consider these changes. Please investigate the sources I have cited as well as the entire Mental Health In Schools Series by NPR and the National Alliance on Mental Illness . To learn more about the teenage mind and how these years are crucial to future development, check out Hank Green explain it here. These resources are remarkably eye opening and more thoroughly detail how to implement the aforementioned methods.

I know that Reading can be a model school once again. I, as well as many of my classmates, are eager to help in whatever way possible. Passionate educators, students, and parents are the only way for Reading to become the community it should be.

Thank You For Your Time,

Julia Donohue
RMHS ‘16

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