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Members in the Student Writers Advisory Group hone in on mental health for teens

SUBMITTED PHOTO: KALEIGH HENDERSON - SWAG members examine factors that impact teen mental health. Throughout the year, students have a lot on their minds and are constantly juggling rigorous courses, extracurricular activities, work and social lives. As the school year draws to a close, some students have the added pressure of multiple tests, college decisions and scholarship applications.

And amidst students' busy schedules are outside factors that impact them as well. In light of end-of-the-year anxiety, members of the Wilsonville Spokesman, West Linn Tidings and Lake Oswego Review's Student Writers Advisory Group (SWAG) decided to tackle the many pressures students face and issues that impact their mental health.

For the month of June, SWAG looked at what schools could be doing to help struggling students.

"There should be opportunities during the school day for groups of students to share their worries and emotions with each other, moderated by an outside therapist," said Claire Petersen, Lakeridge High School student.

SUBMITTED PHOTO: KALEIGH HENDERSON - SWAG members discuss the role school environments play in the mental health of students.Other students examined mental health in relation to school violence and how everyday stresses impact teenagers internally.

Here's what they had to say:

Creating an inclusive environment SPOKESMAN FILE PHOTO - Alyson Johnston

Being in high school is an interesting time in a teenager's life. You're still a kid in so many ways. Many of us still live with our parents, we still have to go to school and we depend on our parents for many things.

On the flip side, we face so many complex problems. We have to plan for college; we stress about grades and tests, and feel the pressure from parents and friends.

Sometimes these problems are overlooked or brushed off by adults as overreactions and excuses for attention or "just teenage problems." Maybe some of these problems are just limited to one's teenage years. But the lack of acknowledgment and validation of these struggles can have an impact that will last far beyond high school.

Many teachers and adults view test anxiety as something teenagers claim to have when they haven't prepared for a test, or if they just want to complain about another quiz. During a midterm I took earlier this year, I saw a student visibly shaking because they were so nervous. The student knew the material very well, but the pressure to succeed and do well took a physical toll.

Imagine if someone is physically shaking due to anxiety; what could be going on inside their head? The sheer amount of stress due to one test can be massive.

Taking an overall look at a student's mental health does not just require someone to look at the academic side of a student's life because social lives play a huge role in a teenager's mental health.

Not fitting into the social mold or "norm" can be hard on a student and these differences can be accentuated throughout high school. While being different is perfectly fine, and should be welcomed in today's diverse society, cruel high schoolers can take every opportunity to point out differences.

Both of these factors play impactful roles in teen mental health. The question, though, is: do schools do enough to help students who are struggling?

In terms of academics, this is questionable. Test anxiety is laughed off by many teachers, and peer pressure and teasing can make a student feel bad about the grade passed back to them.

In the social realm, I feel that schools usually do what they can. Wilsonville High School has done a good job of promoting diversity and equality. Programs such as the Unified Club — which promotes a unified school community of children with special needs as well as those without — has done a great job of creating a positive community at WHS.

Having systems in place to help students cope with academic or social anxiety could benefit both students and teachers — helping and paying attention to students with test anxiety and providing a safe space for those who struggle will be beneficial to students.

Creating an even more inclusive community could also help with social anxiety and making sure more students are included in daily activities would benefit Wilsonville as a whole.

Addressing issues within the school walls can help improve teen mental health and talking about issues can reduce the stigma of a situation many teens face so often.

— Alyson Johnston,

Wilsonville High School

Sexism's role in school shootings SPOKESMAN FILE PHOTO - Wallace Milner

I had intended to write this column on a different subject but the horrific massacre in Santa Fe, Texas has brought to the fore a tremendously important topic. It's an all too real reminder that something has gone horribly wrong in our student population.

When attempting to address issues such as mental health access in schools, it is sometimes unproductive to look at the extreme outliers. At the risk of sounding fatalistic, there will always be some individuals so lacking in empathy that they commit unspeakable acts. But to treat all students as potential killers would do far more harm than good, creating a prison-like atmosphere. We should look, instead, to address issues that plague the masses: stress, lack of sleep, social anxiety, bullying and so on.

With that said, however, a disturbing trend within these shootings — exemplified by the tragedy in Texas — has revealed a broader problem within our ranks: a vicious and brutal misogyny predicated on a sense of entitlement.

The killer in Santa Fe, it seems, was motivated in part by a sense of humiliation at his failed romantic pursuit of a classmate. According to the parents of one of the victims, the killer had repeatedly made advances to the victim over the last four months.

The killer in Virginia Tech had recently been rejected. The killer in Sandy Hook was found to have downloaded a "documentary" on the selfishness of women. The killer in Parkland called white women in interracial marriages "traitors." The murderer at Umpqua Community College wrote a note complaining about the fact that he had never had sex. This pattern holds true for many of the school shootings that have occured over the last decade.

When viewed through this lens, school shootings take on a decidedly different light. They suddenly appear to be an extension of the broader 'Me Too' movement.

These shootings are not just isolated incidents; some are the violent reactions of entitled young men who feel they are owed sex and lash out when they do not receive it.

How does this happen? It happens in a society where women's bodies are governed by political restrictions. It happens in a country where rapists are let off the hook if they have enough money. It happens when we elevate sexual assaulters to the highest offices of government.

I don't say this to undermine the vital debates about gun control, school design and police response. Rather, I hope to present another avenue where progress might be made. The sexism of our youth is a crucial and underlooked cause of these shootings. If we can begin to overcome the cultural trends that have turned women into objects in the eyes of so many young men, if we can start to address the sexism of our laws and of our culture, perhaps we might begin to see a decline in these slaughters.

This process starts in the classroom. All schools should require history and humanities classes to explicitly address gender discrimination. Further, all English classes should feature texts about sexism and the female experience. But that is not enough. For too long, we've simply accepted a climate where young men pursue women long after they are rejected. For too long, we've ignored the sexism endemic in our schools and our communities. This was always a tremendous moral failing, but now it's turned into motivation to commit horrific crimes. For too long we have brushed the issue aside. We cannot afford to do that any longer.

— Wallace Milner,

West Linn High School

Mental health and school violence SPOKESMAN FILE PHOTO - Penelope Spurr

Before he pulled the fire alarm on the wall of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Nikolas Cruz exhibited several signs of concerning mental health. On YouTube, he posted a comment that read "I'm going to be a professional school shooter." He shared pictures of himself next to his guns and wrote hate speech on Instagram.

Anonymous tips led the sheriff's office to understand that Cruz possessed several weapons, including an Airsoft rifle — which he used to kill a chicken — several knives and various styles of firearms.

From 2010 to 2016, his mother called 911 36 times as a result of his threatening violence and anger problems. At one point he ingested gasoline in an attempt to kill himself and on several other occasions made a habit of inflicting self-harm. Cruz was severely depressed. When he pulled the fire alarm and then the trigger, his rifle shots were no shock to anyone who knew him.

Despite constant notifications from family and classmates and the FBI's knowledge of his malicious internet presence, Cruz was able to access the deadly AR-15 rifle that he used to claim 17 lives on Valentine's Day. Everytime a mass shooting like Parkland takes over news outlets, the same question surfaces throughout schools and households alike: How can we avoid this outcome in Lake Oswego?

For one, we have access to Oregon's Emergency Risk Protection Order (ERPO), passed in 2016, which allows citizens to petition a judge for the confiscation of a family member's firearm. Second, the recently-introduced Ballot Initiative 43 bans the future sale and transfer of assault weapons, while Initiative 44 calls for safe storage legislation. If they appear on November ballots after signature collection over the summer, citizens will have an opportunity to vote directly on the proposals as opposed to voting through representatives.

For families who struggle with depression or other mental health issues, these recent pieces of legislation provide an opportunity to protect their loved ones from hurting themselves or others. It is imperative that, as families and communities, we utilize these avenues to keep ourselves and our neighbors safe. Now more than ever, we need to stay aware of not only the ways we can combat gun violence, but also to stay aware of each other.

— Penelope Spurr,

Lake Oswego High School

Students struggle with self-worth SPOKESMAN FILE PHOTO - Andrea Yang

If you've ever watched the episode called "Emancipation" on the TV show "Malcolm in the Middle" you'd see the effects of unhealthy competition, particularly in students.

To briefly summarize the episode, a new teacher arrives at Malcolm's middle school. The teacher creates a visible scoring system on the class whiteboard that ranks students from first to last. The students crack under the pressure of trying to surpass others and the episode ends with a communal meltdown.

Although the circumstances presented in "Malcolm in the Middle" seem overblown, the concept conveyed still rings true when applied to high school in today's world. From a very young age, students seem to already grasp the idea that it is not enough to do their best because they need to do better.

Students spend so much of their time thinking and worrying about their self-worth that they don't have the capacity to focus on what matters more: health, family and things that keep us humble and grateful for what we already have.

When students are struggling with their own self-worth, it causes peer relationships to become severely strained. The pursuit to be better causes a decline in social trust and empathy in terms of academics because students are so predisposed to feeling like they're losing in the race toward their personal definition of success.

In truth, it's unlikely that educators or parents are willing to tell their kids to stop obsessing over their futures. Instead, students are going to have to be responsible for part of the battle against excessive competition.

The whiteboard in "Malcolm in the Middle" represents how susceptible students are to being lured into the academic race, but by the time students reach high school, where the competition seems to be the fiercest, they should be aware that college isn't the end of the line. Our lives continue beyond a diploma. Our teen years, as stressful as they already are, shouldn't be muddied with unrelated internal and external pressures. This is the time to be passionate about learning, not about outperforming.

— Andrea Yang,

Lake Oswego High School

Coping in unhealthy ways SPOKESMAN FILE PHOTO - Lily DeVine

Whenever I hear people talk about middle school, I feel like actress Kate McKinnon in that "Saturday Night Live" skit. In the skit, a group of New Age hippies recount ravishing experiences with aliens, while McKinnon remembers being exploited by them.

Similarly, I have noticed my classmates sugarcoat their middle school memories. I, on the other hand, want to be honest. Although middle school includes less homework and college angst than high school, some students may start inflicting self-harm to cope with the stresses of school.

After being bullied and misunderstood by classmates, some students may find solace in self-harm. When their parents discover their behavior, the student might receive professional help and even change schools. Even though students may receive professional help eventually, they often rely on close friends to help them get through tough times. After middle school, a few students find peace within themselves, but others continue with the same patterns they developed in middle school.

Unfortunately, I know many readers — parents or students — relate to this story. For parents, I am unable to empathize with you because I am not a parent. For struggling students, please read the next message:

I know the past few years have been insanely difficult for you. I acknowledge that you are trying to keep everything together for school. I also know that fitting in is terrifying. But you have been doing a great job so far. I have also seen others depend on you for help, and despite you being wise beyond your years, you are not a professional. Your friends who are struggling need to seek other resources like therapists and counselors. You might be able to help advise a friend who's having mental health issues but you can't save them.

— Lily DeVine,

Lake Oswego High School

Combatting anxietySPOKESMAN FILE PHOTO - Claire Petersen

It's funny to think back to sixth grade, when one of the most stressful aspects of school was remembering your locker combination and successfully getting it to work in time to get to class. Now, the most worrisome combination for rising seniors is figuring out the right sequence of steps that determines and opens the door to the right college. As the stakes grow higher through the teenage years, so do the anxiety levels.

With growing stress, I think anxiety has surpassed depression when it come to mental health issues faced by teens. The pressure to perform well in and outside the classroom grows greater with each year of high school. As we get closer to college application time, many of us are constantly pressured by parents, teachers and ourselves to take the most rigorous courses and get great grades.

After school, homework eats up most hours and any spare time is crammed with activities that must be structured to look impressive on our college applications. We live in fear that we are not doing enough, even when we don't take a minute to just be. With one bad grade in a class, there's worry about a blemish on our transcript. The anxiety about not getting into a good college and receiving a high-paying job grows.

So what can help? There should be opportunities during the school day for groups of students to share their worries and emotions with each other, moderated by an outside therapist. At my school, the teacher-student contact time period might be better spent on this. Trained student mentors could also provide the needed support. There are teen hotlines in the area, but many students with anxiety are too afraid to reach out to parents and friends, let alone strangers. Instead, alumni in the area who are recent college graduates could talk to small student groups about how they dealt with their anxiety along the way.

One piece of advice I tell myself is that generally everything will work out. Learning resilience from others is a critical skill to help manage high school stress and prepare for the journey ahead.

— Claire Petersen,

Lakeridge High School

Stop and thinkSPOKESMAN FILE PHOTO - Elena Lee

Before I say anything else about mental health at my school, I wish to make one thing clear: Mental health is a problem. No matter how much we dissemble and point to the groups of laughing friends sprawled in the hallways, we cannot ignore the individuals who sit in the corner, wishing they were anywhere else. We cannot even pretend that everyone in those circles of smiling teenagers is perfectly content. I could blame the student body for not being inclusive enough; blame the school district for not providing sufficient support; blame myself for failing to reach out to anyone. But to blame one group is inherently nearsighted because the problem does not stem from a single policy or a single action. It stems from the general environment at Lake Oswego High School.

What do I mean by the environment? I'm not talking about trees and global warming. I think if a random passerby had entered the school anytime during these past few weeks that individual would immediately understand.

During AP testing week students are poring over textbooks, Princeton Review books and notes, and students who aren't perusing course material are scrolling through their social media feeds in search of relief. Some students who aren't doing either are looking extremely bored and wishing their friends had time to talk. Perhaps I have left out a few people who are relaxing and enjoying themselves, but this is the general atmosphere. Even on a normal day, a palpable air of tension is visible from freshmen frantically studying for a math test to seniors realizing they'd forgotten about the math test.

Every year, it seems, the pressure increases. Students incessantly hear, "take more AP classes, do more extracurriculars activities, be more amazing." I realize many people have noted this mounting pressure for academic excellence, but oddly enough, no one does anything about it — myself included. Yes, we had support dogs during finals, but how do dogs help if you're panicking about an overwhelmingly difficult class your teachers, counselors, parents, friends told you to take for college? How can a school district reduce stress while pushing its students to take more AP classes that students might not be prepared for? And how much are we students helping ourselves by accepting the fact that we must climb higher to achieve excellence?

I think we could perhaps start by remembering that school is a place of friends as well as tests, a place of memories as well as grades. At risk of sounding like a yoga instructor, I wish we could all simply decompress and forget the competition for grades and achievements that seem to have devoured our free time. Continuous acceleration requires an infinite amount of energy and every individual I know is subject to the laws of the finite.

— Elena Lee,

Lake Oswego High School

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