Albemarle County Students Push for More Mental Health Education

March 06, 2018 | By Megan Pauly

The legislative season in Virginia is winding down – but the work of three Albemarle County high school students is just gearing up. 17-year-olds Alexander Moreno, Choetsow Tenzin and Lucas Johnson are the brains behind a bill that’s likely to become law – requiring schools to talk more about the importance of mental health.

The trio met during Sorensen Institute’s high school leaders program last year. They had to brainstorm issues that were important to them for a policy project, and Moreno came prepared. “We sat down as a group and everybody was like ‘what are we interested in?’ and I was like: mental health, for teens,’” Moreno said.

Moreno felt compelled to help others understand more about mental health – and mental illness – after losing two friends to suicide last summer. “I still remember the feeling of walking through the doors of the church and seeing the individuals and the family and the friends who cared about the people who had been lost,” Moreno said. “I can still feel it, it’s right here. It doesn’t go away. It’s going to stay with me.”

Mental health was already an important issue for Tenzin and Johnson, too: Johnson says when one of his best friends shared suicidal thoughts with him, he didn’t take them seriously at first.

“It was just that point in her life in which everything just started to hit her incredibly hard,” Johnson said. “And that’s when the education would have been fundamental – for her knowing it’s a hard month or a hard two months as opposed to a hard life, and a life not worth living. And for an individual like me – someone who’s so close to her and who should have started to see the signals way beforehand if I would have known that they were – that would have been so much more simple.”

All three agree they should be learning more about mental health in school. While Virginia’s standards of learning for health in grades 9 and 10 require schools to touch on warning signs of suicide, the required material stops there. Tenzin says the material in her online health class wasn’t substantial enough to stick with her.

“So there’s nothing really that talks or discusses or develops the subject matter for the students to understand and grow from,” Tenzin said. Moreno says there was one program that did stick with him – Youth Mental Health First Aid. He helped host the program at his school as a freshman. “That information was taught in such a way that I was able to recall it clearly, there were really moving personal testimonies,” Moreno said. For Moreno – the testimonies were eye opening.

“They offered a whole different perspective to me about what mental health is, how it affects individuals,” he said.

Maribel Saimre with Virginia’s Department of Education says since 2015, 3,300 teachers and school personnel across 39 school divisions have been trained in the evidence-based program through a grant from SAMHSA. So it’s not really training them to be mental health providers, but it’s training them to be able to recognize the signs and symptoms, those red flags that would allow them to say, um, you know, you might need additional assistance,” Saimre said. “Emphasis on: what we can do, we can connect you with a counselor or we could connect you with a school psychologist or we can connect you with a community provider.”

Johnson says that connection piece is key. “That’s what we’re all trying to strive for,” he said. “We’re trying to strive for a place in this world in which a person has a truly deep down issue can go to their best friend, their favorite teacher, their parent or even someone in their community that they really trust and say: I need help. And that person will automatically know who to call and how to get help.”

The students hope to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness that Tenzin says is still unfortunately alive and well. “I think also there’s that ‘oh I have to go to the school psychologist’ kind of mentality where they don’t feel that they can comfortably go there without feeling judged or seeing someone they know as they come out of the room,” Tenzin said. “Unlike seeing your guidance counselor because then they’re like: oh, they’re probably talking about school. But if you go to the psychologist, it’s like ‘oh, maybe something’s happening.”

The issues resonated with legislators like Democratic Senator Creigh Deeds and Republican Delegate Rob Bell – who introduced legislation inspired by the Albemarle crew. “Sort of both the science and cultural issues surrounding mental health have moved very quickly over the last five to ten years in a good way,” Bell said. “But to the extent that we can de-stigmatize, make sure people know what to look for, they can do a better job of helping their fellow students at school.”

But Tenzin says group won’t wait until the bill becomes law to continue their own work. “One saying that you hear a lot is that students are the leaders of tomorrow, of the future,” Tenzin said. “But why wait, why can’t you be the leaders of now? Start today. That’s something that I carry with me when we’re doing this.”

Finals season is just around the corner: and they’re on a mission to ensure students don’t get too stressed. Moreno says he plans to host a “chillax week” at his school. “We’ll have things like coloring and chalk and bubbles outside, if you need to relax you can go outside and do that,” Moreno said. “This year we’re trying to get therapy dogs into the high schools, it’s actually looking like it might come to fruition.” They’re also advocating for a full-time school counselor in every high school.