Sep 15, 2021

Guest blogger Carson Domey, a high school senior and youth mental health leader, advocates for students to have information they need to protect their mental health and find help when they need it.

By Carson Domey, St. John's High School Class of 2022

With the start of yet another school year, mental health and suicide is once again brought to the forefront of many educators, students, and mental health advocates’ minds. As both a student and advocate for increased mental health services, spurred by the loss of a close friend, I cannot help but reflect on the CDC study published in September 2020 that found one in four young people have considered suicide since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020.

For many Massachusetts teenagers, the start of the 2021-2022 school year is the first time they will be back in an in-person learning environment in nearly 18 months. Though excited to see many friends and classmates, I find myself thinking about those who may be struggling to re-acclimate and the associated risk to their mental health.

Many of the safety precautions put in place to help stop the spread of COVID-19, while vital to the wellness of the community, can hide indicators that someone is struggling. Masks, for example, are undoubtedly essential; however, it eliminates the ability for both peers and educators to read someone’s facial expressions and body language, a critical sign to tell if someone may be unhappy or sad.

These obstacles leave a dire need for innovation within education. It is up to every school to develop a plan unique to their needs, with the help of experts, to educate and assist students when it comes to mental health. However, there are many practical proposals currently being considered by the state legislature. By all means, there is no one-size-fits-all solution, but there are countless bills that have the potential to make an immense impact within our communities.

At the beginning of the 2019-2020 school year, I led a successful initiative at my school to add the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on all student and faculty identification cards. The response from the student body, faculty, and greater community was amazing. At a minuscule cost, we put a 24/7 life-saving resource in the pockets of students and raised awareness for mental health.

The most rewarding aspect of this idea’s implementation was the conversations that followed on campus about mental health. In many instances, I found myself talking with fellow students about the importance of mental health. Similarly, educators took time to address these difficult conversations about mental health during class time. In the following weeks, several other local schools followed our lead after seeing the response from our campus.

At the beginning of 2021-2022 legislative cycle, H.2111 “An Act Relative to Student Mental Health '' was re-filed, providing extended hope that this legislation will become a reality. H.2111 would require all institutions of secondary and higher education, high schools and colleges included, to provide the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline listed on the back of student identification cards.

“The mere act of holding the door for someone at school or checking in on a friend can make a world of difference, especially as many struggles are hidden behind the appearance of everyday life.”

In Massachusetts, suicide is the second leading cause of death among people aged 10-34. To put that into perspective, someone dies of suicide every twelve hours in the commonwealth. With the disruptions and hardships brought among millions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to do more than ever to remedy this crisis.

In April 2021, the Harvard Youth Poll found that 28% of respondents between ages 18 and 29 have “had thoughts that they would be better off dead or hurting themself in some way.” This pandemic will leave real damage to our society, but it is important to recognize that so much that was lost over the past 18 months is difficult to see in everyday life. So as we depart one pandemic, we enter another. Researchers believe that while we have seen large increases to those reporting feelings of depression or anxiety, the lingering impacts of the pandemic could be far worse.

The emotions that I endured in the months following the death of my close friend drove me to make sure that nobody has to experience such a tragic loss. We can, and must, do our part to end the crisis that is crippling the hearts and minds of our youngest generation. It is imperative we end the stigma around mental health and enable our youth to have meaningful dialogue about such. Though changes in public policy can have a tremendously positive impact, we need a change in culture. The mere act of holding the door for someone at school or checking in on a friend can make a world of difference, especially as many struggles are hidden behind the appearance of everyday life.

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