MONUMENT • For two years, Palmer Ridge senior Thomas Fry has been conducting his own research within Lewis-Palmer School District and his school to find solutions to support teenage mental health.
Fry addressed the District 38 Board of Education Oct. 18, sharing his own unique perspective on available mental health support and resources for D-38 students.
He introduced himself as having an anxiety disorder, which he said he brought up not for sympathy but rather because of its relevance to how a lot of students his age may be feeling. When Fry first acknowledged he had problems controlling anxiety, he said he felt alone and didn’t know if any of his peers felt the same way.
He described the feeling as “terrifying.” Fry would wonder what was wrong with him as he walked into a classroom and felt butterflies in his stomach. As a cross country and track athlete, he would feel nauseated when stepping up to the starting line. He didn’t know why he was having these feelings of anxiety and panic attacks, and felt like he didn’t have anyone to reach out to in the school community for support.
“Teachers would arbitrarily say to reach out, but I didn’t know where,” Fry said. “I didn’t know who my counselor was or where to find him. I didn’t have any answers, so this is the problem I want to fix.
“Mental health problems need to be talked about, but before that they need to be taught about.”
According to Fry’s research, out of 30 students he’s talked to, five or six are dealing with anxiety, two or three are dealing with depression, and seven to eight are struggling with insomnia. In addition, he found students were not reaching out for help from school resources because they were concerned about being judged, Fry said. He found 70% of students he surveyed inticated they were struggling with some sort of anxiety related to school, and only 10% said they would reach out to school resources for help.
Fry explained anxiety as a misfire of a basic fight-or-flight response.
“Anxiety can be broken down to a tangible biological response. There’s a scientific reason for this, and that actually made me feel better,” he said. “I was never taught about that in school. I had to research it on my own.”
Fry presented potential solutions to the board. These included having teachers set aside a portion of class to instruct students about mental health to encourage honest conversations, and holding seminars about the subject so conversations occur in schools — not just a conversation which takes place once a year, but rather as often as weekly or monthly.
He suggested each school in the district needs more counselors so each counselor is a resource for 50 kids, instead of a ratio of one counselor to 200-300 students.
“We need more of them (counselors), and we need to pay them more. We need to keep them in our school district,” Fry said.
He said the schools should be forming and fostering clubs and support groups where students can share their stories with each other to not feel so alone.
“In my research, these are some of the things I’ve introduced as solutions for our schools,” Fry said. “Schools have an opportunity, and I think they have a duty, to make that education universal. Students are ready to talk about this and we’re ready to develop solutions. Everybody has an underdog story.”
Board members, in turn, asked Fry which solutions could be implemented immediately. He suggested taking time out of class periods to devote to mental health education. For instance, he said, these moments could be used to teach students depression is more than just feeling sad. Fry also encouraged the board and district staff to ensure that counselors are accessible and approachable in schools, and that there are channels to foster empathy for mental health issues by sharing students’ feelings they might be trying to deal with on their own.
“I think those are three very actual things we can have right now and I think will make an effect,” Fry said. “There are other long-term solutions in the structure of the district we can do.”
Board president Chris Taylor said of the presentation, “That tends to take your breath away.”
Superintendent Dr. KC Somers noted the partnerships the district has with other entities in the region regarding mental health, including the Social Emotional Wellness Coalition of the Tri-Lakes Area. The SEW Coalition, a group that meets monthly, invited Fry to be a keynote speaker at the start of the school year.
“Student voices are very important to us as we continue to make it a part of our strategic plan priorities,” Somers said. “We want to make sure we are taking the time to hear our students.”