OLATHE, KANSAS – Mental Health in schools is often a highly stigmatized subject, as the topic can be seen as taboo or make people feel uncomfortable. However, in order for schools to be truly safe environments and for administrations to ensure the well-being of their students, mental health must be discussed and addressed openly.
Such matters are even more important (quite literally life or death) for Black students in predominantly white school districts who often face isolation, ostracization, and other forms of dehumanizing that can have violent and harmful impacts.
“Over the past generation, a mental health crisis has been brewing among Black youths… one that very few people — including Black families — have spoken about publicly. Self-reported suicide attempts rose nearly 80 percent among Black adolescents from 1991 to 2019, while the prevalence of attempts did not change significantly among those of other races and ethnicities,” reported The New York Times.
To be clear, neglected and mental health services impact all students, but have disproportionately harmful impacts on Black students.
For the Olathe School District in Johnson County, Kansas, the topic continues to be neglected and improperly addressed. Particularly following two recent, tragic suicides of students in the district. Numerous students from high schools across the district are now speaking out to express their anger and frustration with the lack of transparency on the district’s behalf.
“I feel like Olathe’s approach to mental health is very cookie-cutter, vague and basic”, said Olathe East High School student John Wallace. Wallace is a junior at Olathe East, who is no stranger to the struggle behind reaching out to school administration. “From personal experience, I told my mom I didn’t feel well (mentally) and my parents called the school, and all they [Olathe East admin] did was call me into the school office and give me a stern talking to,” said a frustrated Wallace.
Lexi Smith, a former Olathe East student but now a junior at Olathe North High School, took a similar stance on this subject matter. “I feel as though the district does what’s required of them to pass board of education requirements and nothing more,” said Smith. Both parties agreed that many students felt isolated and as though they cannot not reach out to administrators about their mental state due to the district’s negligible treatment of the issue.
Maylie Foster, another junior from Olathe Northwest high school took a slightly different stance, saying that she felt “the schools had done a little bit better and made progress, but with all the events happening, they could do even better.” Foster agrees with others that it is time to take a stand for the issue, as that is truly the only way to tackle it and unite.
Another student (who prefered to stay anonymous) stated that they felt as though “academics and sports were the only things prioritized by counselors and admin, thus making them even harder to talk to.” Having gone through anxiety and depression themselves, the student felt angry with the school district that there was no one to reach out to about the topics.
In addition to these students, Eva Kime, a sophomore at Olathe South High, feels as though the district fails to talk about these issues enough. “A mental health day or month of some sort to deeply focus on mental health is what we need,” said Kime, who is hoping to see some significant change in the mental health department during this upcoming 2022-23 school year.
Allyson Scott, another student at Olathe South High school expressed concerns with how the district handles mental health. As an avid advocate for depression awareness, and an individual who struggles with prolonged depression themselves, Scott stated that many educators “lacked sympathy” and gave the same slogan that “mental health happens to everyone or there was plenty of time to complete that assignment,” rather than an actual discussion about the root cause. Scott stated too that the counselors feel like “snitches” rather than individuals we can openly talk to about issues. Scott also feels as though counselors should undergo more training to make themselves more readily available to the student body of Olathe.
Aside from just Olathe, mental health is an issue that many feel is not talked about nearly enough, and continues to be neglected and underresourced in schools across the country. The adults and administrators leading these districts and responsible for the children within them need to think more deeply about how to address this dire issue – and we all should think more intentionally about the impact of our language on the people around us. Mental health resources will make us kinder and more thoughtful to one another, and equip us to interact better with all we come across.