School official determined to help teens become ‘mentally healthy’

Posted at 9:25 PM, Jan 10, 2019
and last updated 2019-01-10 22:22:57-05

BURR OAK, Mich. — Every year assistant principal Kris Owens gives her students at Burr Oak Community Schools an in-depth survey about school life, both in and out the classroom, she said. There’s questions on a wide range of topics from literacy to drug use. However, this year, after a senior took his own life, she and her staff added questions about their emotional and mental wellbeing.

“So we added quite a few things on mental health,” Owens said during an interview in her office. “The results were a bit alarming because I think 30 percent of kids is huge.”

From the survey, she discovered that one third of the high school students deal with anxiety, depression and sometimes thoughts of suicide, she said. That's the largest it's been ever. It was heartbreaking for her to read, she said. However she learned a lot.

“We really need to get rid of the stigma of talking about your mental health,” Owens said. “We’re trying to look into a lot of things for next year, or as quickly as possible, just to open up the conversation with students and say it’s okay to talk to somebody.”

One of the things Owens learned from the survey, and through conversations with students, was that social media played a huge role in their daily struggles, she said. Kids felt an overwhelming pressure to constantly post pictures online or “keep streaks going on SnapChat,” she said. It’s how kids are valuing themselves nowadays.

“They feel addicted to their phones,” Owens said. “They feel the need to keep up on social media.”

Another factor is homelessness and poverty, she said. Many students in the county are either living with their grandparents or other relatives. Others come from an unstable home. According to the United States Census Bureau, of the 828 people who live in the town the median household income is approximately $46,000 and 11.5 percent live below the poverty line.

“A lot of people just struggling to survive and I’m sure that can cause some anxiety even if [adults] try to keep things from teenagers,” Owens said. “[Teens] are pretty savvy about knowing what’s going on.”

Despite a student’s home life, many kids deal with pressure of doing well in school so they can earn scholarships for college she said. Seniors from Burr Oak have graduated and gone on to pursue higher education at a range of schools from Hope College  to the University of Michigan and Michigan State. However, college is expensive and getting the “competitive” grants can be hard.

“I think we’ve just pushed so much on kids at such a young age,” Owens said. “I think teenagers now are probably learning what I learned in college. The expectations have risen that much.”

Owens said she’d like to see more counselors working in schools to help students get through their daily pressures. In the meantime, she and her staff are going to meet soon to talk about the best next steps to help the students and ways they can incorporate mental health discussions into their curriculums. The goal is to get the kids talking and she wants them to know that “it’s OK to fail.”

“We learn through failure,” Owens said matter-of-factly. “And you can keep going on after that.”