Sad teen in her bedroom

"Concern for mental health services has swept across many school districts but especially so in the East Valley, where 41 students – some as young as 12 – have taken their lives since July 2017."

High school students, mostly from Desert Vista, implored the Tempe Union Governing Board last week to do more to address their classmates’ mental health or risk deepening their anguish to a point where some take to drug abuse and others turn to suicide.

Harkening to the fact that they had been before the board a year ago asking for more counselors on campus who are devoted to mental health concerns and not college preparation, Armando Montero, an Arizona State University freshman who graduated from Desert Vista in May, said:

“I’ve gotten plenty of promises that we were going to work on this and we’ve met with you several times, but it’s gotten nowhere. We have our pilot committee at Desert Vista that has continuously worked but has not had a voice and the problem goes beyond that. 

“It’s as if the conversation we started has not gone anywhere to the point where we have students that have attempted to commit suicide over the summer. Yet, it’s thrown under the rug and nothing is done about it.”

School board members and Superintendent Kevin J. Mendivil expressed sympathy with, and support for, the students’ concerns, but made no specific promises.

“While it doesn’t feel like a lot has been done in one year,” Mendivil told them, “there’s been positive movement in the right direction and you don’t feel that and you may think that they’re empty words, but they’re not. I worked with our SSAC (Superintendent’s Student Advisory Council) group. I think you know, where my heart is and where my passion is but I alone can’t do it. This board can’t do it. This is a collective effort.”

“I hope that you have no doubt that there is commitment on this board for all the students,” Mendivil added, praising the students for speaking up and telling them “we have to work together and we have to look to the other sources where we need to make that difference.”

Concern for mental health services has swept across many school districts but especially so in the East Valley, where 41 students – some as young as 12 – have taken their lives since July 2017.

Some of the student speakers who address the Tempe Union board Dec. 4 talked about counselors too busy to talk to them and portrayed some teachers as helpful and others seemingly too distracted to bother. 

 “I’ve seen teachers with the same level of compassion for their students working to create nourishing relationships with said students clubs on campus had been formed on ours like Thunder Strong and our diversity committee,” senior Lance Watkins said.     

“And while these groups and individuals have worked to cultivate a culture and community that opens the door to wellness and mental health dialogue, therein lies the problem: Students have been forced to do the faculty’s job for them,” Lance continued, adding:

“Clubs standing on this unofficial platform don’t have the authority and the power to enact massive change and teachers can only create a positive class culture within their classrooms. When that bell rings, their comradery is left at the door.” 

Lance urged “fundraising to support these on-campus clubs that handle wellness, increasing awareness or participation with these entities or equipping the schools of resources like our counseling staff with the ability to refer students to these clubs in their time of need.”

“We really urge for your outspoken support and consideration,” he continued. “I understand that the burden to reach out inherently lies within the student, but the student cannot do this if they do not know or know how to reach out. Awareness is a powerful tool that we need to be incorporating and integrating into the TUHSD culture.”

He cited seniors who are facing “trying times” as they deal with graduation and   “making large steps toward their futures” while many juniors “are facing the arguably hardest academic year in their high school careers” and sophomores “are still feeling lost and navigating the halls of their campuses.”

“We just want to know that you’re on our side, (that) you’re fighting with us and we can’t do this alone,” he said. “We just want to feel safe at school physically, emotionally and academically.”

 One girl told the board she went to see a counselor because she was feeling “very overwhelmed” and that from the counselor’s rushed treatment, “I didn’t think that she actually had any investment other than to get me to stop emailing her, so that she could just get onto the next student.”

Desert Vista junior Andrew Miller said, “I think one of the main issues that is associated with mental health I see on a lot of campuses and with friends from other campuses is drug use and I feel like if we are able to take action on mental health, you’re going to be able to prevent a lot of students going to drugs.”

“I’m a junior. It’s stressful,” Andrew continued. “I have friends who get too stressed and they have to find alternatives to just calm themselves down. It’s a genuine problem and it’s something that we can clearly prevent.”

Claire Van Doren, another 2019 graduate of Desert Vista and former president of the school’s LGTB Club, told the board, “Teachers and clubs are often the only resource that LGBT students have” at a time in their life when they are struggling with their sexual identity.

“It’s hard to go out of your way to find somebody to speak to and to find the courage to talk about something as personal as your sexuality or your gender, especially when you aren’t even sure if you know what that is yet,” she said.

“That’s the reality for many high school students that they are questioning their identity and that’s something that’s very difficult to talk about. And while my club was a really important recess resource to a lot of students on campus, I didn’t have the power to actually go out of my way and advertise it to every single student.”

She said counselors “weren’t given the resources to actually reference my club or even be made aware of its existence.”

“The reality is that for LGBT students, it can be extraordinarily isolating to be at a massive school with no resources. Counselors need additional resources to be able to deal with these kinds of issues and students need additional resource as well. … Otherwise we see LGBT students at a higher risk of suicide, depression and bullying by their peers.

“That is the sort of thing that we cannot wait to take action on and we have to take action on in the moment. It cannot wait a year. It cannot wait two years and it certainly can’t wait four years for an entire body of students to go through there. The reality is that this is something that needs to be fixed now, not later.”

Board President Berdetta Hodge told the students, “The resources for mental health for adults aren’t much better than you’re seeing for students,” and praised the students for continuing their campaign for better services.

“Mental health is very big right now and it doesn’t just start in high school or grade school,” Hodge told them. “It’s something that continues to life. So, this fight that you’re fighting will not just be in just high school. It’s going to be something that you will be fighting for probably for the rest of your life.”

She explained how she and board member Sandy Lowe and Tempe Union administrators have lobbied the Legislature for more funding for counselors, adding  “It’s not just in our district. It’s not just in Vista. It is a world-wide problem. So, maybe one of you guys may be the person to solve it. I hope so.”

Mandivil said, “I wish I had a magic wand that could make things different today in this moment for you in your lives. It pains me to know that you have that level of concern at your age. You should be enjoying life…You’re still teens, enjoy them because it’s going to end soon and you become adults. I just want you to know that you have our commitment. And I ask you to be patient.”

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