Student Well-Being

In This District, Students Are Part of the Mental Health Response

By Denisa R. Superville — June 05, 2023 5 min read
Hands holding a monochromatic head shaped puzzle of a classroom with three colorful pieces of green grass, sunshine, and trees floating around the puzzle . Mental health concept.
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Districts nationwide are trying to address high numbers of student needing mental health support. What if they can enlist students as part of the solution, too?

A rural Ohio high school has done just that.

At Claymont High School in Uhrichsville, Ohio, about 55 miles south of Akron, a group of about 21 high schoolers are trained in mental health first aid. They’ve taken a six nearly hour-long courses over six weeks to learn how to help their peers who are going through a difficult time—including how to talk to students who might be having thoughts of suicide, how to connect them with a trusted adult, and how to provide them with mental health resources.

Maggie Lesiecki, a sophomore, said she’s learned how to talk to peers who are having mental health issues, without making them feel bad about it.

“Ask them how they are, listen to them—just be a friend, give them someone to talk to,” she said.

The students, who are in grades 10 to 12, are part of a larger program called Peers Uplifting Peers, or P.U.P., which helps to break down the stigma around mental health and wellness and normalize having conversations about both and seeking help when necessary.

They’re trained as dog handlers for the district’s two therapy dogs—another student-led wellness initiative.

The students take the dogs to classes to help ease the anxieties of those who may be nervous about giving a speech—or help younger students gain the confidence to read.

“With this training we are able to help our friends when they are experiencing problems in their lives,” said Cora Dotts, a freshman.

Cora’s sister, Gemma, a sophomore, is also in the program, and their mother, Heather Dotts, a science teacher at the high school, is one of two trained adult dog handlers in the district.

Weaving together support

New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released last week show that teen mental health emergency room visits for mental health related issues were dropping. But schools are still struggling to find qualified mental health care professionals to help students. That’s even harder in rural areas like Uhrichsville.

Kelsi Barnhart, the school’s assistant principal, said that while the county sends a counselor to the school once a week, the counselor is unable to take new student referrals.

“Sometimes that’s frustrating—to tell a parent, ‘Right now we can’t send you to this agency,’” Barnhart said.

Teachers help where they can, Barnhart said, but they’re not substitutes for having clinical, medical help on campus. Students are also helping out, by picking up on early warning signs.

The adults stressed that students are not meant to provide counseling, and a key part of their training is to help their friends get in touch with professionals and established resources.

“They are noticing that maybe someone is having a hard day or is just sitting by themselves,” she said. “They try to be good friends, and they speak up. It’s not that they are stepping in and providing counseling. I think it’s about being a good person to everybody and setting an example: This is how we treat other people.”

Through their training, the students learn about mental health resources in the school and the community.

From left, students Savania Whitten, Gemma Dotts, and Cora Dotts demonstrate the facility dogs' skills during a 50-minute presentation about the P.U.P. program at the 2023 Stark State College Honors Symposium on April 22, 2023.

“These kids are high school students, [they] are on that bridge into adulthood. Many of them are also enrolled in college courses,” Heather Dotts said. “I would say these kids get to be kids—but they are also learning how to be leaders. They have learned the tools they need to support their peers who are experiencing a mental health crisis. They learn to understand the science behind these mental health challenges, and they learn how to get their peers help.”

Despite a national conversation around mental health, the context may be different in rural communities, said Bridget Britton, a behavioral health field specialist and a licensed social worker. She runs the mental health training programs for adults and teens for Tuscarawas County, in which Urichsville is located, at the Ohio State University Extension College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences in Philadelphia, Ohio.

There’s still stigma around mental health, as in many communities. Getting to a therapist or an acute care facility can also be a challenge, since most rural areas do not have the bus and rail systems found in urban or suburban commuter communities. And in a culture where many people subscribe to a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” ethos, it’s hard to something talk about mental health out loud, she said.

“People don’t talk about it, she said. “People don’t want to talk about it. The parents don’t want to talk about it.”

There are also financial barriers. Many rural residents work on farms, which often don’t provide workers with health insurance. And although tele-health has expanded in recent years during the pandemic, lack of reliable internet means many rural communities aren’t benefiting, she said.

Britton has trained the entire administrative team in some rural districts in mental health first aid, as well as their teens for teen-led mental health first aid.

“It fits into the prevention model, which I think is super-important,” she said. “They are really one of the first lines of defense. They are with their peers all the time. They feel most comfortable talking to their peers. Sometimes they will open up to their peers [more easily] than they would an adult or a therapist. So, if their peers are trained in saying, ‘It’s OK to not to be OK,’ that’s part of the solution.”

Helping and supporting friends

The students offered key tips on how to approach those who need assistance.

Student canine handlers receive a three-year tMHFA certification. Here they're pictured with OSU extension educators Bridget Britton and Kiersten Heckle on Dec. 9, 2022.

“Try to ask if they have a trusted adult they can go to about the problem,” said Cora Dotts.

Maggie, a sophomore, found herself in a tough situation last year with a friend who was struggling. The friend stopped attending classes, and at one point contemplated taking their own life, Maggie said.

She was able to talk to them and get them to talk to a professional. Her friend is in counseling and doing well today, Maggie said.

“Now that I have gone through the training I feel like I could talk to [them] a lot better,” she said.

Learning key skills beyond mental health first aid

The students said the program has also helped them develop coping skills for themselves—like taking social media breaks, finding trusted peers to talk to when they are struggling, and spending time on hobbies, like swimming, reading, gardening, and watching television.

“I have a circle of support,” Cora said. “Personally, I love to read, listen to music, and hang out with my dogs, rabbits, and horses.”

Chelsea hangs out with her friends and family. She’s also in 4-H and runs track. Gemma loves to read, play the cello, and ride horses—all great ways to de-stress, she said.

Britton said more districts are reaching out to her for training. But often, it’s still only after a tragedy happens

“I always tell them we can’t go back, we can only go forward, and that’s what we’ll do—go forward,” she said.

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