It was January 2021, after a long day of virtual school, and a cold feeling of intense fear and an inexplicable feeling of dying overcame me.
I’m safe in my house – I can see the light where my mother is working downstairs – but I feel like I’m in danger. I walk to my room, turn off all the lights and sit on my bed. The task of breathing becomes laborious; any calm I had turns into panicked, gasping breaths, and the more I try to recover myself, the worse the attack gets.
Only when I put earplugs in my ears and blow a song do I finally calm down. I rock myself back and forth until the tears stop, then pull myself up. It was my first panic attack. As I navigated unfamiliar territory, I felt terribly alone.
The following month, on February 3, a classmate committed suicide.
She was a few days younger than me, and the thought of the pain she was in sends an electric shock to my nervous system. The impact of her death reverberates throughout my community in the whispers we exchange, sudden shifts of eyes, and the heaviness in our heels as we walk.
Student mental health was already at a low ebb before the lockdown; the pandemic exacerbated the problem and strained the relationship between student and dean. Counselors say anxiety rates are on the rise, and with a major developmental component missing from most students’ lives, social-emotional skills suffer as well. This is especially hard on teenage girls and LGBTQ students, studies say.
During the 2021 school year, when I had my first panic attack, the schools in my state of Georgia failed to meet the state-mandated advisor-to-student ratio of 1 in 450. They still don’t. This is a far cry from the 1 to 250 ratio recommended by the American School Counselor Association.
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Students feel alone – and they are
Without fully funded mental health services, students are left to fend for themselves. Months after my classmate’s suicide, I felt isolated and depressed. I didn’t know how to handle my emotions and the idea of getting help felt unthinkable.
In the absence of trained professionals, we as students have to pick up our own pieces. Even when I was in pain, I found myself taking on the role of the “therapist friend.” I talked my friends through every panic attack they had, every suicidal ideation – every crisis. I saw isolated classmates with no one to talk to, people who didn’t feel safe enough to contact professionals. They often cited past negative encounters as the reason why. Appointments were difficult to access; meetings were uncomfortable or useless.
It’s not the school’s fault. The counselor’s role has shifted from solely academic to also caring for students’ mental health, many counselors are not trained enough to meet students’ mental health needs, and counselors are often understaffed and overworked.
An estimated 14 million students are in schools with police officers, but without a counselor, nurse, psychologist or social worker. The presence of officers rather than counselors in schools disproportionately pushes students of color down the pipeline from school to prison, leading to escalation in situations that could have been propagated by an unarmed professional.
The presence of school staff means fear mongering and brutality, and increases incidents of excessive violence, mostly against black and Latino students. According to the Advancement Project, more than 25% of school police assaults have targeted students with disabilities or students who reported mental health problems, and more than 80% of school police assault victims since 2011 have been black students.
There are systematic reasons why students suffer and there are concrete steps we can take to achieve true safety in our schools. Instead, divisive politicians blame critical race theory, AP African American Studies, and transgender youth simply seeking acceptance.
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Fund advice sources – not culture wars
These politicians are funding culture wars, not children. Rather than enforcing a “zero tolerance” policy that puts students of color at risk, schools should focus on reforming counseling and creating positive school environments and support systems.
They must heed the calls of school counselors for more staff and funding, as well as the call for help from students, who all have a bright future ahead of them with the right support. Funding for adequate tutoring gives students the resources and strength to build a better life for themselves. It’s what we deserve.
In May 2021 I started to get better. I learned that asking for help was essential. I started seeing a psychologist. I explored new hobbies and rediscovered old ones. I didn’t just pull myself out of a depressed state; I learned how to deal with it – and I didn’t do it alone.
Now, well into my freshman year of high school, I know things aren’t perfect, but I no longer feel alone. And I know that if I feel like I’m falling, there are a lot of people around to catch me. Every student should have this support, especially those who can’t find it at home. We can fully fund mental health care in every school to meaningfully address the ongoing crisis in youth mental health care; there just has to be the willingness to do that.
Punishment systems do not reduce fear, nor do they negate the need for care and compassion for our overall well-being. We are safer and healthier when we have school counselors and social workers trained to support students’ emotional needs rather than neglecting them or pretending they don’t exist.
Prioritizing our mental health needs is what care looks like. This is what security looks like. In an uncertain and sometimes scary world, that’s the least we can do. That is what we as children deserve.
If you or someone you know is going through a mental health crisis, call the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline which offers confidential 24/7 support by calling 988, or visit 988lifeline.org
Nia Batra is a high school student and member of the Georgia Youth Justice Coalition, which is part of the HEAL Together coalition.