Students prepare for new school year with mental health education for peers

Raise Your Voice is a mental health education and advocacy club growing in area school districts
Published: Aug. 31, 2023 at 10:23 PM CDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

(WSAW) - While class is just beginning for many students, some have been hard at work to prepare for the 2023-24 school year. Raise Your Voice, a mental health education and advocacy club, has been growing in school districts throughout north central Wisconsin. Officers of the clubs have many things prepared with the goal of helping their peers.

“The summer break isn’t as long as people think it’ll be,” Reggie Lahti, the president of the club at Merrill High School laughed.

Before preparing for the new school year, club officers practiced what they preached, taking time to enjoy, what is for many of them, their last summer as high school students.

“Good ideas can generate through less stressful situations during the school year,” noted Bridger Lemmon, Merrill’s vice president of the RYV club.

Their officers met earlier in August to begin planning.

“We have a theme every year, like what do we want to focus on this year,” explained Lahti. “We want to focus on our roots. We want everybody to know what the roots are and grow from there, but it’s a matter of putting that into fancy words now.”

Choosing a theme does not just happen at the Merrill chapter.

“Our slogan for this year is, don’t compare your behind-the-scenes to somebody else’s highlight reel, and that kind of ties in with our theme of social media for the year,” Leila Heuser, the president of the Wausau West High School club stated.

The West chapter is going into its second year as a club and is still building its membership and imprint at the school

“Most of our officers are seniors,” Liza Mueller, the vice president said. “So we need more people to kind of head up this operation.”

Merrill’s chapter has a few more years of experience and has a couple hundred students as members.

“I, personally, have been just thinking about our club members,” Lahti said, “and how we can be even more engaged person to person, not even as much just having people there, but as much of having a relationship with every single person in that room.”

Many others like at D.C. Everest Senior High, are just beginning their clubs this year. Haley Kerswill, a counselor and the advisor of the club at Wausau West said schools looking to start a club, or those that are just beginning should just trust the process.

“There’s no like, right or wrong way to do things,” she explained. “Starting off just having a good vision for the year, having a good outline of what you want to accomplish, whether that’s, you know, doing school-wide projects, or if you really want to focus on getting more members to your club, you know, having one goal is going to be easier than trying to do like 10 things.”

Going into the second year of the club, she said she has seen immense growth and watched as the students do exactly what the club was designed to do.

“Last year during Warrior Welcome Night, I was the only one at our table because our group was just getting off running. And so it was me trying to, like, recruit students to come and join our club. And this year, my officers were like, ‘no, we want to do it, we want to take the lead.’ And so it was just like refreshing to have, you know, other students step up and say that they have a passion for this and that they want other students to be a part of this as well.”

The latest Youth Risk Behavior Survey data from the national, state, and district levels show roughly 40% of students do not feel like they belong in school. The data also indicate that the lack of a sense of belonging and social connectedness increases the risk of students having other issues like depression, anxiety, self-harm, or even suicide. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data from 2017 to 2020 show suicide is the second leading cause of death for middle, high school, and most college-aged people in Wisconsin and across the country.

Students have ideas about how to address this.

“They were just kind of throwing out ideas of what they’re seeing their friends or even themselves struggling with,” Kerswill said.

“Whether it’s something as shallow as an Instagram post, where somebody’s smiling, and then maybe they go home and they’re struggling, you just never know what’s really going on with somebody,” Heuser said.

“I want to focus on our diversity, right? So our men’s mental health, our women’s mental health, our LGBTQ community,” Lemmon explained. “Through guest speakers of various backgrounds, some non-nuclear family speakers, some tech speakers, some firefighters, first responders, (and) blue-collar workers.”

These club meetings are not group therapy sessions, they are a place for kids to be seen and heard, to learn about mental health, and how to get help for themselves or others with the available resources.

“I think the biggest value that I see for our students is just being a kind person,” Kerswill concluded.

“I know in my life, I’ve had some struggles, and it’s taken me a while to open up,” Mueller encouraged. “And now that I’m on the other side of that I’m kind of upset that I didn’t, like vocalize it earlier, because I could have been in a much better mental health space than I was.”

“We’re like, super understanding people, our the entire club is,” Lemmon stated. “We would love to have you in it.”

Students can expect events and lessons taught by experts and their fellow students who have received training. That includes the Green Bandana Project, where students receive training about how to support each other and direct each other to resources when needed. People can identify students who have received the training by their green bandanas that they wear or tie to their backpacks.

Many clubs also organize run/walks to bring awareness of mental health into the community. Others work to provide monthly or even weekly reminders for students about positive messages and coping skills. To learn more about Raise Your Voice clubs, including how to start one, click here.