Students tell legislators about mental illness, peer pressure

August 28, 2018 | By Bob Stuart

One in five teens between the ages of 13 and 18 will develop mental illness.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people between the ages of 10 and 24.

These are just numbers, but Virginia legislators are attempting to burrow down below the numbers and see what they can do to improve identifying troubled Virginia school students and if those students are being bullied online or in the hallways.

The student behavior and interventions subcommittee of the Virginia’s House Select Committee on School Safety heard from area high school students and education professionals Tuesday at Blue Ridge Community College.

Fort Defiance High School senior Justin Simmons described a caring faculty and staff at that Augusta County high school. But Simmons said bullying is just part of the culture. He said students’ dress can be a target for other students.

“I do get scared about what I wear to school,” he said. But he also described a compassionate group of teachers, including one teacher who annually conducts a seminar on depression. Overall, he said, “we are there to support one another and not pick on one another.”

Chance Bryant, a Waynesboro High School senior, said it is vital that students be aware that help is available. Among the challenges at WHS are the school’s diversity of students and those students being susceptible to attack in today’s digital age.

Bryant’s classmate, junior Avery Clarke-Quarles, said teacher education is critical. She said teachers need to be aware, and students need to be told “you have someone to talk to.”

Bryant said intervention and identifying warning signs of mental illness really needs to happen as early as middle school. “Middle school is where personalities are developed,” he said. “Regular checkups are needed in middle school.”

A University of Virginia education professor and veteran school counselor said all she heard Tuesday is what school counselors are trained on, including bullying, conflict resolution and other behavior issues students are confronted with.

Julia Taylor, an assistant professor at UVA’s Curry School of Education, said school counselors have the same core training as mental health professionals, and can identify the warning signs in students.

But she said in Virginia, the counselors are bogged down with such bureaucratic duties as class schedules and lack the proper ratios to really help students. When asked by legislators how many more school counselors are needed to reach a one to 250 ratio, she said in excess of 1,100.

When working as a school counselor in North Carolina at a smaller school, Taylor said students “knew me. If they had a problem they would come to me.”

Taylor told Del. Todd Gilbert that a good practical way to pinpoint students at risk of mental illness is a test known as a universal mental health screening. But she said screening all Virginia students would take considerable time.

Del. Steve Landes, R-Weyers Cave, the chairman of the student behavior and interventions subcommittee, said recommendations from the subcommittee will go to the full House Select Committee on School Safety.

The committee was formed earlier this year by House Speaker Kirk Cox, who felt it was time to deal with security and behavior issues in Virginia schools in light of the violent school shootings and security issues across America.