Graphic By Edith Pendell via Canva
Graphic By Edith Pendell via Canva

ELHS Opened Back up for the First Time in Nearly a Year. Feelings About the Return are Mixed.

Students Struggle With Mental Health, Return To In-Person School

March 19, 2021

Facing the choice between returning to the building or staying online, almost a year after the school closed its doors on March 13, 2020, Si Yun Kimball (12) remembers being originally relieved when school ended.

Photo of Si Yun Kimball (12)
Si Yun Kimball (12) at a Zoom interview last week. Kimball attends school in-person for two hours every day. Photo by Edith Pendell.

“I think, at the beginning of last year, everyone was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, it’s a break’,” Kimball  said. “We were so oblivious.”

She had no idea what was in store for her. When restrictions stopped her from seeing her friends, she began to “fall into bad habits like not sleeping, and anxiety.”

“There’s definitely been ups and downs throughout everything going on,” Kimball said. “and I think leaning on my family and friends definitely helps with that.”

Hoping to see friends, Kimball was originally ecstatic to return to in-person school full-time. As the return approached, however, she became worried. 

“I have social anxiety disorder,” Kimball said. “So for me, being around a lot of people, you know, can be really overwhelming. I started to think, ‘maybe this isn’t the greatest idea.’”

She knew returning might not be in her best interests, but she had to weigh that with the knowledge that she needed a change.

Kimball wasn’t alone in struggling over quarantine.

According to the CDC, in 2020 the number of mental health related emergency department visits for children between the ages of 12 and 17 increased by 31 percent between 2019 and 2020

Phillip Smith (12) has also struggled, spending his senior year online. 

Photo of Phillip Smith (12)
Philip Smith(12) at his house. Smith is still deciding whether to return in-person for the last part of his senior year. Photo courtesy of Phillip Smith.

“If I’m being completely honest,” Smith said, “[my mental health] has gradually declined. It was alright, but it’s slowly going downhill.”

According to most students interviewed, the mental health climate at the school has diminished over the last year. 

“The people that I’m interacting with, I wouldn’t say they’re in their best mental health,” Smith said. “They are probably doing better than I am, but I wouldn’t say anybody’s really at their best in high school all all. They are just trying their best.”

He also commented on the gaps in support available to certain groups. 

“There’s this whole stigma behind people of color,” Smith said. “[They are said to] not have mental health issues, or they’re just painted as crazy and then leave it there. Some people may be bipolar, but it’s just painted as angry, just like, like a ‘mad black woman’ when there might be something deeper within that, like an actual mental health issue.”

According to the American Psychiatric Association, 32.5% of people of color suffering from mental illnesses receive treatment, compared to 48% of white people. This could be because of cultural stigma or lack of culturally competent and diverse mental health practitioners, among other causes.

Smith is still deciding whether to return in the coming weeks, but he said that “just being able to get a break from everything going on at home” would be great for his mental health. 

Smith and Kimball aren’t the only ones making these considerations. In a March. 4 Instagram poll, 83 percent of returning students cited it as a motivation for returning to in-person school on the high school campus on March 1, 2021.

Kimball eventually decided to split her time, attending school online for first through fourth hours, and in-person for the last two. 

“The majority of my decision was kind of based on my mental health,” Kimball said. “I would just get very overwhelmed with being back all of a sudden [all at once].”

The turn in the weather has Kimball feeling optimistic.

“Now that it’s getting warmer and I’ve been outside a lot more, I’ve had a lot better days. Being in the sunshine and being outside and stuff like that, I think that’s definitely helped a lot.”

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Graphic by Edith Pendell via Canva

Clubs and Administration Offer Mental Health Support

East Lansing High School clubs and administration have been working to provide students with mental health resources throughout the school year. Weekly Mood Meters and ‘Wellness Wednesdays’ have been provided by ELHS administration since the start of online learning as a way to reach out to possibly struggling students, and several ELHS clubs have launched resources for students during the pandemic. 

A school social worker, Heather Findley, provides immediate and crisis-associated help to students, especially those at risk for suicide or self-harm. She also holds “Wellness Wednesdays” via Zoom every Wednesday, where students can explore self-care activities like yoga. According to Findley, these programs are “crucial to de-stigmatization and improved awareness.”

“The dedication to serving all our students is necessary and exciting, and it feels the district is extremely motivated to reach everyone.” Findley said. 

Matt Morales, an associate principal who coordinates with Ms. Findley about students’ mental health, develops new mental health programming through community and district connections for ELHS.

“During the pandemic,” Findley and Morales wrote in an email, “greater attention is needed to address unique challenges of isolation, students missing out on milestones, and increased risk of financial instability, housing instability, and grief and loss.”

Most ELHS students are familiar with the Mood Meter, a Google form provided by administration, that teachers give students the chance to fill out once a week. The form includes questions like “how are you feeling?,” and emoji representatives of emotions, such as stressed, calm, and hopeless, which students choose between as a reflection of their mood.

62 percent of respondents to a survey posted on the Portrait Instagram on March 4 said they were “not always honest” when filling out their emotions in Mood Meters. Some middle schoolers, who also fill out mood meters, feel the same resistance. One of these students is Maggie Swords (8).

“They might follow up,” Swords said. “and that makes me uncomfortable.”

Caleb Pluta (11) has been reached out to in the past by his speech therapist after filling out a mood meter. In general, he says, he prefers talking to people he knows better about mental health.

“I’m just more comfortable with reaching out to friends and family,” Pluta said. It’s nothing against the school. I just feel much more safe that way.”

Despite the efforts of the school and clubs, data from the Portrait poll indicates that 51% of ELHS students still feel mental health support was “inadequate”. 

Findley hosts the Transforming Research into Action to Improve the Lives of Students (TRAILS) program, which is a seven-week course that aims to help students better deal with the challenges of the pandemic. TRAILS utilizes mindfulness and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which, according to the American Psychological Association, aims to change the way people think about and cope with psychological problems, in order to break out of destructive habits.

“I am enjoying connecting with all different students and believe systemic and programmatic change is happening and remains possible for future generations.” Findley said. 

Despite advances, only 50% of students surveyed in the Portrait poll said they had someone at the school they felt they could contact for emotional support, and some feel that the school isn’t doing enough, and are overwhelmed with the new schedule, especially returning to in-person school, including Luke Vitale (11).

“Give us more breaks,” Vitale said. “I know it’s school but it seems like a lot fast.”

In addition to school-provided resources, the Students for Mental Health Club has been sending thank-you notes to teachers and care packages to students, as well as promoting good mental health habits through their Instagram.

 

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A post shared by ELHS SMHC (@elhs_mental_health)

Megan Mullaney (11) joined the club this year to be a force for good in the school. She saw an increase in depression and anxiety, especially during the pandemic, and wanted to help take action in her own community. 

“Helping our student body means providing for needs that are not being met,” Mullaney said.

According to Mullaney, the club’s biggest project this year has been the Buddy System, They matched students who signed up with each other based on shared interests and struggles. The students would be introduced and could chat with each other.

“This year a lot of students needed a friend or just more social interaction, so as a club, we decided we were going to supply that,” Mullaney said.

The Students for Mental Health Club isn’t the only student-led group taking charge of mental health this year. Mori Rothhorn (11) decided to help start a brand-new club this year, Students for Body Image Support (SBIS), based on her own experiences. 

“I think at the beginning of quarantine I actually weirdly enjoyed myself because finally, I could rest, you know,” Rothhorn said. “but then my bubble like kind of burst” 

She found that, over quarantine, there was nothing to do except “worry and obsess” about food and her body. 

“On social media,” Rothhorn said, “it was all like, ‘are you going to glow up, are you going to like to work out in quarantine?’ or  ‘are you going to get fat?’ and those were the only two options.”

She hopes her club can help target the specific mental health issues of eating and body disorders and body image.

About the Writers
Photo of Marie Adele Grosso
Marie Adele Grosso, Managing Editor

Marie Adele Grosso is a member of the Class of 2022 and is the Managing Editor for Portrait. This is her second year on staff as a Junior. Marie Adele’s...

Photo of Edith Pendell
Edith Pendell, Social Media Editor

Edith Pendell is a member of the Class of 2023 and is the Social Media Editor for Portrait. This is her first year on staff as a sophomore. Edith’s favorite...

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