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"Mental Health Matters to School Students" news article

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Odds are that if you had asked Loren Davis what was troubling her, she wouldn’t have been able to tell you.

If pressed, the then-student at Park Forest Middle School might have described it as a bad case of nerves, the closest concept within reach to describe what she would eventually come to identify as a recurring case of severe anxiety.

That term would first find its way into her lexicon thanks to a video she stumbled across in the eighth grade — a moment of clarity and self-awareness as brought to you by the good folks at YouTube.

During the course of the next year, there would be one other discovery that Davis would make about the pervasive tingling that was her spider sense.

“Whenever I came into the high school, it got a lot worse,” Davis said.

For starters, there were all of the new faces, the ones intermingling with and at times obscuring the familiar menagerie of mugs she had grown accustomed during her stints in elementary and middle school.

You also have to take into consideration the building itself — big, imposing, perfect for whittling away those long passages in between English and ninth-grade math with an unexpected detour down the wrong stairwell.

Finally, there was her place on the food chain, which as a freshman was located somewhere in between rock bottom and whatever subterranean annex the aforementioned stairwell declined toward.

Suicide is unfortunately the second leading cause of death for middle school and high students in this country. Matthew Wintersteen, associate professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Thomas Jefferson University.

As the fall of her sophomore year at State High approaches, Davis said that she is feeling a lot better about things — in part because she realized that she is not alone in her quest for mental health.

Every two years, the Pennsylvania Youth Survey collects an influx of data from sixth-, eighth-, 10th- and 12th-grade students across the state, soliciting responses about attitudes toward things like drugs, violence and mental health.

In Centre County, the 2013 data revealed that 30.4 percent of students identified with the statement “at times I think I’m no good at all,” 27.1 percent felt depressed or sad and 12.6 percent had seriously considered attempting suicide.

“Suicide is unfortunately the second leading cause of death for middle school and high (school) students in this country,” said Matthew Wintersteen, an associate professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Thomas Jefferson University.

Wintersteen, who also sits on the executive committee of the Pennsylvania Youth Suicide Initiative, said that preventative efforts — like the ones spearheaded locally by the Jana Marie Foundation — have increased during the past 10 to 15 years.

Identifying children at risk, however, still poses a challenge. Wintersteen said that kids struggling with depression are sometimes reluctant or even unsure about how to broach the subject with an adult.

“It creates a lot of anxiety. There’s a disbelief sometimes among adults,” Wintersteen said.

In recent years, the Jana Marie Foundation has taken it upon themselves to provide a few conversation starters, one of which currently sits in Park Forest Middle School.

The Stomper Project — christened in the name of stomping out the stigma surrounding mental health — turns old sneakers into statuesque works of art.

Students at Park Forest Middle School were enlisted to build their own Stomper two years ago as part of a two-week course on maintaining the ol’ gray matter.

The result was left behind for the benefit of posterity, the first word in what will hopefully be a long discussion.

“The students that weren’t here when we did the Stomper Project, I’m sure they’re saying, ‘What is that?’ ” said Howard Pillot, a sixth-grade teacher at Park Forest.

Pillot was the primary point of contact between the school and the Jana Marie Foundation. He recognizes a steady diet of stress as an unfortunate reality of the middle-school experience, a time when students are beginning to build their identities and questioning how they measure up to their peers.

“It’s a huge job when you think of a community taking care of children,” Pillot said.

The role of the community will come into even sharper focus with the advent of Suicide Prevention Awareness Month in September.

During the span of 30 days, a cascade of walks, seminars and performances will reinforce the importance of year-round mental health.

At 5:30 p.m. on Sept. 10 — Suicide Prevention Awareness Day — an evening of hope, healing and remembrance will be held at Millbrook Marsh Nature Center.

Last year, Seveta Gallu, an incoming sophomore at Bellefonte Area High School, graced the event with some of her poetry.

Gallu was diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety three years ago but has been grappling with the toll of her symptoms for much longer.

“What was really difficult for me was that most of my friends said that they couldn’t understand why I just couldn’t be the happy-go-lucky girl I used to be. But around this time, I discovered that writing was one of my passions. I saw it as a way of communicating what was going on inside my head,” Gallu said.

Her poems have touched on everything from the experience of having an anxiety attack to the type of loneliness and isolation that categorizes some of her worst bouts with depression.

No matter how dark the subject matter, she always ends with a hopeful finish.

“I want people to know that no matter how bad it is, pain doesn’t last forever. I feel that everyone has the potential to recover from the difficulties they’re going through,” Gallu said.

It’s an admirable sentiment, but continuing that dialogue throughout an entire school year — especially when you’re dealing with hundreds of students — can be tough.

Jeanne Knouse is the director of learning enrichment/gifted support and student services at State College Area School District and oversees all counseling in K-12. After the Pennsylvania Youth Survey data specific to State College came back in 2013, Knouse said that the district was able to identify a concern.

According to the responses in the 2013 survey, 28.6 percent of sixth-, eighth-, 10th- and 12th-grade students in SCASD identified with the statement “at times I think I’m no good at all,” 23.4 percent felt depressed or sad and 12.1 percent had seriously considered attempting suicide.

“We saw that was a concern,” Knouse said.

Once last fall and again in the spring, the district’s freshmen completed the Behavior Assessment System for Children survey, a test that helps to monitor changes in behavioral and emotional status.

I want students, not only myself but everyone in the school, to feel comfortable. Loren Davis, sophomore at State College Area High School

The fall survey helped the district to identify students who were potentially in need of outreach and arrange to meet with them individually and offer help.

“Some things were so easy, like, ‘I’m really worried about this class,’ ” Knouse said.

They also partnered with the Penn State Psychological Clinic and the CEDAR Clinic to offer group therapy sessions.

The spring survey provided a benchmark at the end of the school year to see just how far the students had come.

In fall 2016, the BASC survey will be administered at the sophomore as well as freshman level.

Knouse thinks that much of the stress that students experience at the high school level stems from a strong desire to achieve. Feelings of worthlessness, anxiety and depression can all accompany any failure to balance an increasingly full plate.

And the adults aren’t the only ones who have noticed.

In response to the 2013 PAYS data, a group of State High seniors formed My Mental Health Matters, a student group that promotes the lifestyle of the phoenix, the mythical bird that can be found on the stickers they handed out to teachers to designate a safe space.

“It represents you getting down and getting back up,” Davis said.

She joined MMHM last year, one of a number of members that contracted at the end of the previous semester and looks to expand with the next.

They meet on the first and third Tuesday of each month, planning awareness campaigns or talking to experts in the field.

Davis’ anxiety is getting better, too. She’s developed breathing skills and meditation techniques to help take the edge off and the friends she’s made through MMHM have helped make the high school itself less of an unknown.

She seems genuinely happy.

“I want students, not only myself but everyone in the school, to feel comfortable,” Loren said.

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