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Gaffney Middle, High School students aim to reduce stigma around mental health

By Pam Rentz and Sarah Meehan

After watching their peers struggle with mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, a group of students in Cherokee County, S.C., hope to dispel stigmas around talking about challenges with anxiety, depression, suicide and other mental health conditions.

Although youth in Cherokee County agree mental health problems are prevalent in their community, they said it’s rare for people to talk about them. Now, middle and high school students in Thrive-U, a branch of the student wellness program Fit2Gether, are working to change that. The group aims to launch a podcast in time for the start of the 2021 school year that focuses on the mental health of youth.

Among mental health concerns, students said they have watched youth suicides and suicide attempts become more of an issue. But, they said, they rarely discuss the problem.

“It’s sad that it takes a lot of people dying for us to bring up the topic,” said Elly Tate, an eighth-grade student at Ewing Middle School. “Nobody’s talking about it.”

Tate was among a panel of students from Ewing Middle and Gaffney High School who gathered to discuss challenges around mental health, remote learning and other academic issues in Cherokee County. The event was co-hosted by America’s Promise Alliance, a national network of groups designed to improve conditions for young people.

“Some people don’t feel like they’re needed; they feel like they’re useless,” said Cortez Dawkins, a rising senior at Gaffney High School. “You matter to somebody.”

While the students discussed steps teachers could take to create a supportive environment, they also acknowledged they have a role to play in preventing bullying and meeting their peers with acceptance. 

“It’s not all on the teachers,” Dawkins said. “We also as students have to accept each other.”

The students encouraged their peers to reach out to other students and adults if their mental health challenges become overwhelming. 

“When I wake up in the morning I often tell myself, ‘Today is gonna be a good day, I’m gonna try and be better than I was yesterday,’” said Gaffney High School rising senior Joe McGill. “It’s little sayings like those that keep me going.”

South Carolina students report struggles with mental health

In the 2019 South Carolina Youth Risk Behavior Survey, students reported experiencing mental health issues. Almost 40% said they had feelings of sadness and hopelessness almost every day for two or more weeks in a row, and 1 in 5 seriously considered suicide. 

Roughly 14% of students made a plan about how they would attempt suicide during the previous year and 10% attempted suicide. 

Over a quarter (27%)  of high school students reported that they drink alcohol, and 26% said they currently use marijuana. 

A 2016 study found that out of 10,000 adolescents, two-thirds of those who developed alcohol or substance use disorders had experienced at least one mental health disorder.

Need for additional mental health supports in schools 

The effects of virtual learning took a massive toll on students’ mental health across the country. 

In South Carolina, more than half of school district websites provided COVID-19 resources and information, but only 20% of 85 South Carolina districts displayed mental health-related information such as telehealth and virtual counseling services, according to a report by University of South Carolina researcher Aidyn Iachini. 

In an effort to provide accessible mental health services, South Carolina Public Schools chose to implement school-based-services to address early intervention and prevention resources for students and their families. Initiatives such as non-stigmatized mental health programs are supported by South Carolina’s Department of Mental Health and the Governor’s Safe Schools Task Force.

There were 282 mental health professionals in 400 South Carolina schools, less than half the state’s schools, according to the state Department of Mental Health. The Department aims to get a mental health care provider in every school.

The state, like most of the country, falls short of recommended student to mental health professional ratios. 

The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) recommends one school counselor for every 250 students. In South Carolina, the counselor-student ratio is 1 to 347, slightly better than the nationwide average counselor-to-student ratio of 1 to 424.

The National Association of School Psychologists recommends one school psychologist  for every 500 students. South Carolina’s psychologist-to-student ratio is one to 1300, which is 2.5 times the recommended number of students.

Bullying and Harassment in SC schools

South Carolina students contend with bullying and harassment, with almost a quarter of students reporting being bullied on school property in the state’s most recent Youth Risk Behavior Survey. About 15% of students said they were bullied electronically (through texting, Instagram, Facebook, or other social media), and  1 in 10 students said they were injured or threatened with a weapon on school property.

Bullying and harassment can be even more severe for LGBTQ students. More than 80 percent of about 200 South Carolina LGBTQ students who participated in the 2019 GLSEN National School Climate Survey

reported regularly hearing anti-LGBTQ remarks from students and staff, and most experienced some form of victimization at school. 

Over half of these students never reported the incidents of bullying and harassment, and less than 20 percent said that when they did, there was effective intervention.

Pam Rentz is an intern with the Urban Health Media Project and rising junior broadcast journalism major at Florida A & M University. Sarah Meehan, a former Baltimore Sun reporter is a UHMP instructor.


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