Memorial students advocate for better mental health services

February 14, 2019

With school shootings and violence in recent years, students from Memorial High School are pushing for better mental health services to help keep their campus safe.

About 25 students from the school’s Mental Health Ambassadors group traveled to Austin on Wednesday, Feb. 6, to meet with state lawmakers and encourage more funding and programs to improve students’ mental health.

The group formed earlier this school year as a response to last year’s deadly shootings in Parkland, Fla., and Santa Fe, Texas. Melanie Phillips and Carly Kirk, Memorial’s two Communities in Schools wellness counselors, saw a need to create an environment where it was more acceptable and encouraging to talk about your emotions, issues and mental health.

“We started seeing a lot of students here in our office, and we wanted to really spread the word that we’re here for students all day at school and that they don’t need to be ashamed to come and talk to us,” Phillips said. “There’s no stigma around talking about your problems. So we saw a lot of these students coming in and just being really open with us about things going on in their lives, and we kind of recruited them to start this movement.”

Now, Mental Health Ambassadors has about 50 students. Rita is a ninth-grader who got involved through her experience with the wellness center. She found help there when the pressures of being a high school student started causing her to have anxiety attacks.

“I got called into the wellness center, and it helped me calm down. It was a really big step in (my) understanding that even if I felt OK, I wasn’t OK because I had that happening to me where everything started boiling over,” Rita said.

She encourages other students like her to recognize that their mental health is just as important as their academic pursuits.

“I feel like in schools you’re always taught academics first, grades first, getting into college first. But it’s also your mental health, how you’re feeling, like your relationships with your friends, relationships with your family,” Rita said. “A lot of students in this school don’t understand that and push down their feelings, and they feel like it isn’t cool or accepted to feel the way you should feel. I finally understood that, and that’s why I’m advocating for mental health.”

Visiting the state capital seemed to be a catalyst for 10th grader Jasmine to come home and take more action to help other students.

“It was really an experience. It was educational, and I think before I was less inclined to advocate, but now that I know the problems, that I know more about it, I think I’m more involved with it than I was before,” Jasmine said.

Phillips said the day was worthwhile for the students because it taught them about possible legislation that could better the mental health situations of those around them and also showed them how the legislative process happens. The students had the opportunity to speak with state senators and house representatives to share how Communities in Schools has benefited them.

Communities in Schools is a nonprofit that provides guidance and counseling and helps students navigate available resources so they can succeed. Parents at Memorial High raised funds to bring two CIS wellness counselors onto their children’s campus. With more than 2,500 students at Memorial, Phillips said she and Kirk have been able to sit down with several hundred since the start of the school year.

In the world left behind by tragedies like Parkland and Santa Fe, Phillips urges students to take the “See something, say something” model to heart and be ready and willing to report what doesn’t seem right.

“If a student has a concern about a fellow student or they see something on social media or hear something in the hallways, we encourage them to come tell us or tell an administrator at school just so that someone’s aware,” Phillips said. “We really encourage that so that our school can be a safe environment, and we want every student to have somewhere to go to talk about their problems.”

She added when students don’t find an outlet to discuss their concerns and emotions, they bottle things up inside and things can go awry.

Jasmine said the experience showed her that she wants to be an agent for change for her fellow students.

“I learned that there is quite a lot of change that needs to happen, and in order for that change to happen, people have to want it to happen,” she said. “They have to take the appropriate steps to make it happen, and that starts with anyone. … Anyone could make the change: better to start now than to start when everything goes wrong.”