One of Ashley's friends committed suicide when they were both students at Winona Senior High School (WSHS) nearly two decades ago. They say time heals all wounds, but that has not proved true for Ashley. Now in her 30s, she makes regular visits to a therapist to talk about the painful thoughts that still swirl around her friend's death.
The suicides of two WSHS students last year was a shuddering wake-up call to the importance of youth mental health for many. Winona Community Action, Response, and Education about Suicide (CARES) was formed last fall to rally parents, educators, and the community around the issue. The group held one of its first events, an informational meeting on teen grief for parents, on Wednesday. Last year's deaths and the fallout from them had a presence at the meeting. The wounds still felt raw as parents whose children have been affected by the recent suicides looked for guidance.
Adolescents experience grief differently than adults and are less able to deal with and understand it, Winona State University counseling assistant professor Jo Hittner told the crowd. The front part of the brain—where planning, understanding causes and consequences, and abstract thinking occur—is the last to develop in teenagers, she explained. Often for children and younger adolescents struggling with grief, "it is so mixed up for them that being able to articulate that is going to be very difficult," Hittner said.
"I see a lot of anger," Becky Windschitl, a Hiawatha Valley Mental Health Center (HVMHC) provider who works in the public schools, said of kids struggling with grief. But, underneath that "they are just really sad and frustrated because they cannot say that they are sad."
The stakes of mental health for youth are high. School counselors in the panel talked about seeing straight-A students drop to D's and F's. After the death of someone close to a child, "there is going to be this abrupt change in their lives and how they cope with it is going to affect their relationships," Hittner said.
As the meeting transitioned to questions and discussion, a woman in the audience opened up, saying that she had a friend commit suicide years ago, while they were in high school. "My life was set back seven years because I did not know to ask for help. Kids need to be educated" about getting help for their mental and emotional issues, she said.
What can parents do?
The panel of therapists and counselors at the meeting offered parents advice on helping their children who are grieving. Spending time with the kids and talking to them is crucial, they said. Windschitl recommended talking to kids while they are "trapped in the car" with them, but also paying attention to other forms of communication a child may be more comfortable with, like art or music.
Ideally kids would be able to talk about their grief, be sad, but also continue to enjoy what they enjoy. Unfortunately, that is not always the case.
"Watch for chronic sadness and depression," Hittner advised. Has your child's interest level in school, activities, or whatever they were into, dropped? Are they making riskier choices, including drug and alcohol use? These are things to look out for, signs that your child may be struggling, Hittner said. "If they are denying that anything is different, that is not a good sign," she added.
Go with your gut, Sherry Walters of HVMHC said. She has seen many parents who are worried sick because their child is acting depressed, but they do not know what to do. "The parents are terrified, and yet they don't move." Walters said she asks the parents, "What if your child had pnuenomia?
"You see these symptoms that are frightening. How is that different from physical illness? And the difference is whenever it comes to here up," Walters put her hand to her head, "we become very frightened.
"Call your doctor. Do a depression screening," she urged.
Kids will insist they are fine and resist talking about their issues, but insist on seeing someone, the panel advised. "My advice is storm in there and get them," Walters said.
The taboo of
Mental health is something people do not want to talk about, the panelists agreed. "Everything from here up," Walters again indicated her head, "is so taboo."
"Mental health" is not a very old term. Jen Whetstone, a counselor at Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS), said that years ago when she started her career as a counselor there was resistance to using the term in her job title, for fear people would be "turned off." There is a fear that if one has a mental health issue, one is "broken" or dysfunctional, the panel told the audience. The term "mental health" itself implies a certain attitude towards mental and emotional issues: that they are parallel to physical health issues.
"This is the culture we need to start creating to make it okay to talk about mental health," WSHS counselor Matt Horel said.
Horel announced that WAPS is looking at new protocols that provide help for students who might be at risk for suicide and a better response plan for suicide deaths. A grant would fund new programs to reach those goals. Horel said the district is also looking at mandating mental health awareness training for all staff, implementing student support groups, building a kindergarten through 12th grade mental health curriculum, providing support to parents and community members, and screening students for mental health.
Horel said while it is great that these things are happening, schools and parents need to do more. "We are not preparing our kids at all on mental health," he said.