Students raise their voices to help their classmates and community prioritize mental health

7 Investigates: Supporting Students
Published: May. 11, 2023 at 7:34 PM CDT
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(WSAW) - When there are broad issues impacting children, often, their voices go unheard as the adults make the decisions about what happens to them on their behalf. With suicide being the second leading cause of death for teens and young adults, this population refuses to stand by without a say, especially on this Children’s Mental Health Day. Many students in north central Wisconsin are getting educated and speaking up to create change for themselves, their communities, and future generations.

7 Investigates spoke with students throughout the north central Wisconsin region about what they have personally experienced and seen in their classmates. Especially as students were coming back to school for the first time after the pandemic closed school doors, they all said many students visibly had a hard time adjusting.

”I have seen like, lots of kids with low self-esteem, and just low like courage,” Bridger Lemmon, a junior at Merrill High School continued. “They’re all like, looking down at the floors, not looking at people, not communicating. It’s just, it’s really hard to see.”

”I’ve struggled with anxiety and some depression, mostly through the pandemic,” Wausau East sophomore, Avia Lynch stated; it is something several students told 7 Investigates they experienced during that time.

”I’ve seen a lot of like widespread normalization of joking about like depression or suicidal ideology,” Aspen Bloczynski, a sophomore at Wausau East High School noted.

Lynch agreed saying jokes about suicide can be heard when walking around the halls.

“It’s not beneficial for people to like, make off-hand jokes about this, because deep down there is some truth to it,” Bloczynski concluded.

”I wish adults would be more recognizing of how deeply the pandemic affected my generation,” Lynch said.

Current seniors in high school would have been freshmen when the pandemic hit; juniors would have been eighth-grade students; sophomores in seventh grade; and freshmen in sixth.

”Eighth grade, and like freshman year, that’s kind of like the transition period, like from middle school to high school, and that’s kind of been taken away from us,” D.C. Everest Senior High junior, Braden Zoromski pointed out.

”The transition from you know, the seclusion of online school to, oh, we’re just going to drop you in the ocean of Wausau West,” Leila Heuser, a junior explained was challenging.

”It felt surreal like it didn’t feel normal,” Jaylee Thomas, a senior at DCE said. “You could tell everyone was nervous, and everyone had anxiety and their own mental health issues that they had developed over the years, like being online and not seeing people.”

”Coming into high school, I wanted to do like, ‘oh, I want to do like all of the honors programs, like honors bio, honors English,” Lemmon began, “but then the pandemic happened, and it kind of messed with my mental health.”

All of the students 7 Investigates spoke with said they were high achievers and were very mindful of making good grades even despite these challenges, but it made learning that much tougher.

“You’re just shut out from all of your friends. You’re quarantined. You can’t go outside,” Lemmon continued. “You just kind of in this, like mopey area.”

The events of the world even beyond the pandemic also shaped and impacted how students see themselves and society.

”I kind of enjoyed the secluded learning,” Liza Mueller, a junior at Wausau West began. “I liked being by myself, but I think with some of the events that happened in 2020, and just kind of realizing, oh, this is how the world is working right now, and I may not like everything that’s going on. That kind of contributed to me thinking, hmm, maybe I should focus more on my mental health.”

Some students have not been diagnosed with a mental illness, but have struggled to cope with the typical pressures high school students in this era face along with other factors in their personal lives; whether it be jobs, clubs, family challenges, and other expectations.

“We’re just expected to handle it all and not think twice about it, when in reality, it’s hard to go from seven hours of school,” Mueller explained. “You might have practice after school on top of that, and then when are you going to get that homework done, you know? You can fall behind on checking up on yourself, and you might not even realize it, and now you’re in this deep hole that you don’t know how to get out of.”

“I lost two friends last year,” Thomas mentioned. “It was, it was difficult, it was a very hard thing to like, express and to deal with.”

“I just think it’s very important that it’s, it’s recognized that people still can struggle, even though things are seemingly normal,” Lynch added.

Some students face a diagnosis too.

“I have struggled with mental health pretty publicly, since like middle school, and it wasn’t really by choice,” Heuser explained. “I suffered from a pretty severe eating disorder. So, that was a mental health struggle that did show on the outside as well, where it was something that was being judged by my peers without really any control from me. So I think, learning how to cope with that was really difficult, and that was pre-pandemic.”

“So then during the pandemic, that’s when I really started to recover and heal myself. And then, you know, we came back to school, and this club was just starting up. So it was kind of like that perfect transition from struggling, like, being scrutinized all of that, to ‘I’m healing,’ to ‘OK, I’m ready to help others.’ I think that that’s a transition that a lot of people could make with the right resources.”

Reggie Lahti, a junior at Merrill High School, said she felt symptoms of anxiety since she was in elementary school. It took until seventh grade for her to be formally diagnosed, but she said she did not seek treatment at that time.

“My freshman year (was) really bad. Like, I was having panic attacks once a week like it was, I had a really bad panic disorder, in addition to my anxiety,” Lahti explained. “I stared at the ground 24/7. Everybody hated me for it. They were like, ‘bro, just look up,’ and I was like, ‘I can’t.’”

“But within Raise Your Voice, and also seeking out therapy and medication, I was able-- I mean, it’s not that I don’t have anxiety, but I don’t have the feeling of like, everybody’s looking at you. Everybody hates you. Like, it’s not that anymore. I have more confidence in myself and more ability to be like, you know, I’m OK.”

Raise Your Voice

7 Investigates: Supporting Students

″I think the pandemic was good in a lot of ways because we had all had a lived experience that was very similar, and it was really tough on everyone,” Allie Libby, a counselor at Merrill High School said.

Sharing about personal struggles can be scary and brave, especially for teens, who are already trying to find a sense of belonging and where fellow classmates’ judgments can keep people from showing their true selves. However, as the data show the mental health of students is overall worsening, and those students and their communities are looking for a better way.

“During the pandemic, we did a number of listening sessions with high school youth and young adults,” Wisconsin Office of Children’s Mental Health Director Linda Hall said. “They have a lot of ideas about how to address the mental health crisis, and they, you know, want adults to listen to them about how to do this.”

“One of the top causes of death for 10-year-olds is suicide,” Tracy Johnson, the interim executive director for NAMI Northwoods, or the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “I mean, this is unacceptable and I think that as a culture, not just as NAMI, but as a culture, we have a responsibility to, you know, help these kids to learn to deal with these feelings to you to get them the help that they need.”

NAMI formed an initiative that has turned into clubs sprouting up at several schools across north central Wisconsin, called Raise Your Voice. NAMI Northwoods connected with Libby.

″Really the kids kept saying, ‘We got to start this club up. I’m seeing my friends struggling. We’re all home, we don’t know what the future holds,’” Libby explained. “You know, there was a lot of loss because they weren’t able to have normal graduations or have sporting events, and they were grieving those things.”

The club administrators first work to train their student members in evidence-based education about mental health, how to have difficult conversations around mental health, provide healthy coping techniques, and connect students to mental health resources in the community. Then, students lead from there, raising awareness about mental health, sharing those strategies to get through difficult times, and helping their fellow students when they need support.

“We’re really looking to support those initiatives,” Hall said. “We think that they work (as) sources of strength, in particular, is an evidence-based program that started as a suicide prevention program. But it’s really grown to be more of a program of helping youth identify positive norms, and think about that for themselves, and think about the positive culture that they can create in school. We know data show that when you create a positive school culture, behavioral discipline, cases, drop, kids do better and grades get better.”

”At the heart, Raise Your Voice is a club dedicated to breaking the stigma around mental health,” Lahti, the vice president of the Merrill chapter stated.

”The culture around Raise Your Voice is super, like forgiving and very compassionate towards mental health,” Lemmon described.

Merrill’s club was formed in 2020. It now has hundreds of student members in both the middle and high school. Lahti and Lemmon joined one year into its founding as a freshman, but they wished they would have joined even sooner, saying that the group gave them a stable place to orient themselves into high school life. It allowed them to feel safe and welcome to be open about any struggles.

“It feels to the point where if you’re ever keeping a really bad secret, and you just don’t want to tell anybody,” Lahti said of how it feels to share her experiences with anxiety and panic disorders,” like but you once you say it, it kind of gets off your chest a little bit. That’s exactly what it feels like, except for it’s not a bad secret; it’s just a fact about myself. But it feels like a weight being lifted off of my chest every time that I’m able to just be like, ‘Yeah, this is how it is, and this is what I’m doing.’ And I think that that’s just a really freeing thought to be able to do that at this point.”

Numerous other school districts have begun to adopt the club as well. Rhinelander, Lakeland, Wausau East, and West have also started clubs. Next year DCE, Marathon, and Antigo will begin their own chapters too.

“There are over 200 schools already who have youth-led mental health programs,” Hall stated, “and we’re trying to bring those youth together to build some leadership around these issues and have the youth coming forward and saying, ‘This is what we need to do.’”

”There’s this big misconception that just because you experience sadness, anger, depression, whatever it is, that you’re weak, that you’re not strong enough that you need to be, you need to put on this face in public, that everything is just sunshine and rainbows, but that’s not true,” Josie Leiter, a freshman at Wausau East urged. “Expressing emotions makes us human. That’s who we are and we should just be able to freely feel emotion.”

”Our friend group,” Mueller began, “We’re all very academically driven... So I think just letting people know that your grades don’t define you. And your GPA doesn’t define you.”

”A lot of students that I’m around, really don’t know how to deal with mental health issues and don’t really know what to do if they’re in a situation that, you know, they need support,” Lynch said. “So, I’m hoping that Raise Your Voice can like if, if not provided, you know, at least show how you can get to a safe situation.”

”It’s a place for education and improvement and how to help other people and be a support for other people,” Heuser noted. We’ve presented on signs of suicide. We’ve talked about self-love.”

”We have the bandana project,” Lemmon explained. “We see a bunch of green bandanas around the school so you know who to talk to, if you’re not in the club, if you’re struggling.”

“Kids have been trained to talk to other kids about mental health, and I think it’s really important,” Zoromski said, excited to build the club next year.

“I know as a teenager, that we’re less likely to listen to like a teacher who wants to talk to us about these things,” Bloczynski admitted. “But if a peer comes to me and shares this information with me, I’m going to be like, more open to listen.”

That is what the data from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey show too.

The Raise Your Voice club at Wausau West High is supported by the National Alliance for Mental Illness or NAMI Northwoods

Haley Kerswill, a counselor and club administrator at Wausau West said they had started a similar club, Warrior Minds Matter, in 2019 after a student who struggled with an eating disorder felt that resource was important to help end the stigma against mental health that she faced daily. With the pandemic upending school as it was, Raise Your Voice was a perfect avenue to revamp the effort. Less than a year into the launch, she is already noticing a difference in her students.

”My students are becoming better leaders in the community and better advocates. We are really aiming to give them those skills... to be able to advocate for themselves for others for people that may not have a voice themselves, and they’re able to go out and speak against things that may not be right.”

“We went to the Capitol as a Raise Your Voice club to the Action on the Square, which we got to talk to our legislators about basically fully funded school-based mental health and why it was important to us,” Lahti said.

The confidence she has gained from the club, and the experience of sharing her personal experience and struggles with fellow classmates and adults has shown her a career path she could not have imagined three years ago.

“I plan to go into a political science major and either go into law or go into lobbying with my future and I would never have came to that conclusion without Raise Your Voice.”

While Thomas will graduate before being able to join DCE’s club, her experience of losing friends to their mental health struggles inspired her to help create initiatives in her school and inspire her to become a child psychologist.

“I have always wanted to help kids I’ve always loved like, the idea of helping people and especially kids because they are clueless,” she laughed, “and they don’t know how to deal with it. I think that for kids especially, it’s important for them to like, understand, from a young age that it’s normal to talk about and everyone goes through it.”

She continued, “It’s so heavy. It’s a heavy topic and I think that as well as it should be heavy, it should also be something that is normal and it can be talked about.”

”I just hope that we can end the stigma against mental health,” Mueller concluded.

”One day when I am 30 years old, and walking down the street and talking to my friends, I won’t have to think about the stigma anymore, because I won’t be there,” that is the hope, Lahti said.

To learn more about Raise Your Voice or get a club started at your school, click here.