Survey results may lead to changes in required health class
By Elise Marlett, Current Staff
More than half of the high school students in Washington County have struggled with their mental health.
Of the students who took the Youth Risk Behavior Survey in April, 67.3 percent reported having poor mental health. The survey classifies poor mental health as feeling stressed, depressed or anxious, as well as having problems dealing with one’s emotions. For many adults and students at the West Bend High Schools, the high amount of students experiencing mental health issues is not astonishing.
West junior Noah Doedens says that both academic and social pressures can affect a student’s mental health.
“High school is so stressful nowadays, with so much of that stress coming from the expectations regarding grades, standardized testing and applying for college,” Doedens said. “Not to mention the social impact that school has on kids in today’s world. Kids must live up to expectations and ‘fit in’ to be felt included in the standard high school cliques or social classes. I think many kids are lost throughout high school.”
Amanda Wisth, the interim director and health officer of the Washington and Ozaukee health department, says that the survey has given a more specific view on what needs to be done in the future while also proving that poor mental health is consistently increasing among youth.
“We (now) have the data to support initiatives within the school districts and start the conversation among all school districts to impact some of these behaviors,” Wisth said.
Though it is never ideal that so many students report poor mental health, East High school counselor Kara Phillips is able to see a positive side to such a high statistic. The high percentage indicates that people who are struggling are willing to self-report their feelings, making it easier for the school to get them the help they need.
“I don’t think I want us to decrease reporting,” Phillips said. “We are very happy that more and more kids are happy to talk about it with someone, whether that is a friend or an adult and somehow if it can get to us or a teacher.”
Because poor mental health within the high schools is known, WBHS already has multiple support networks for students who are struggling. West Bend has spaces within many schools, including WBHS, where local counselors and therapists can have their sessions with students during an off hour or study hall.
Students have support from adults within the building, but creating a supportive student body is the next step. The results of the YRBS show that when students are feeling hopeless, stressed or anxious, they turn to their friends first. Wisth says that peer support will help those who are struggling to get the help they need and that peer support can be encouraged by decreasing the stigma around mental health conditions.
Phillips says that when students go to their friends for help when struggling with their mental health, the best thing one can do is listen. However, if the issue threatens anyone’s safety., it should be brought to a trusted adult.
West sophomore Samantha Wagner and her friends also find this important.
“My friends and I frequently talk about those matters,” Wagner said. “We find it our jobs as friends to make sure everyone is in a safe and stable mindset. If something is wrong we talk through it and give advice or just listen. Sometimes all someone needs is to be listened to.”
“We find it our jobs as friends to make sure everyone is in a safe and stable mindset.”
– Samantha Wagner, West sophomore
Some students say that learning of others’ mental health problems can be overwhelming.
“I try to be supportive and always try to make sure they feel good about themselves and know that I am here for them,” East sophomore Maya Doedens said. “It is hard though, always supporting others because at one time I had three people at once asking me for advice and coming to me with their issues, it was just a lot for me to handle. I think that mental health is an issue that needs to be more addressed so that this does not continue to be a growing issue.”
West sophomore Lauren Oppermann says that coming to a friend about mental health struggles can be both difficult and rewarding for that individual. However, she believes that confiding mental health issues with a friend is not beneficial if the individual is not already working on overcoming life’s challenges.
“It all depends on how the individual decides to react to life’s obstacles,” Oppermann said. “It is difficult to seek help, but one cannot expect another peer to stabilize their life for them.”
Phillips says that the students who hear of another individual’s health struggles deserve just as much support as the individual with mental health issues. She comments that the concern for another friend and that person’s safety is too much for any individual to have to bear alone, whether they are a high school student or an adult, and it’s best for those in need to seek help from trained professionals.
“That kind of concern about a friend is just too much for one individual to carry around,” Phillips said. “That’s why we have people that are trained professionally to help with these concerns. (Students) are not a trained professional and when we have any question of someone’s safety, that is way too much responsibility for them to be carrying around themselves and keeping private.”
Students are always encouraged to come forward if they are having mental health issues or if they know friends who are. The hope is that with more reporting, more students will get the help they need and the percentage of students struggling with their mental health will decrease over time.
“The more that we can get connected to those students and refer them when needed or at least give them one more safe place to come during the day, then that’s a good thing,” Phillips said. “Whatever comes to us we follow up on and take very seriously.”
There is also conversation about altering the current curriculum for the WBHS health class, which includes a unit focused on mental health. In the past, the class has been required for both eighth graders and 10th graders. Now, students only need to take a half credit of health at any point between eighth grade and their senior year. The same curriculum is taught to all students regardless of the age group taking the course.
Wendy Wiesjahn, East High’s physical education and health teacher who is also serving on the committee to review the YRBS results, predicts that a change in health curriculum will decrease the percentage of students suffering with mental health issues.
“I’ve wanted this survey information to help prove that we need more health education,” Wiesjahn said. “For people on the committee, it’s our top priority.”
(This article is part of an ongoing series of stories about the 2018 Youth Risk Behavior Survey. Edited for clarity.)