Violet Elementary kindergartener Hannah Fish holds a sign she created for Mental Health Matters week in Lake Shore Public Schools.

Violet Elementary kindergartener Hannah Fish holds a sign she created for Mental Health Matters week in Lake Shore Public Schools.

Photo provided by Lake Shore Public Schools


Mental health matters, school officials say

By: Kristyne E. Demske | St. Clair Shores Sentinel | Published January 25, 2021

 Lake Shore Public Schools promoted mental wellbeing Jan. 11-15.

Lake Shore Public Schools promoted mental wellbeing Jan. 11-15.

Photo provided by Lake Shore Public Schools

 School teachers and staff tried to help students realize that everyone can struggle with mental health with help from signs made by students like Violet Elementary kindergartner Ashton Taylor.

School teachers and staff tried to help students realize that everyone can struggle with mental health with help from signs made by students like Violet Elementary kindergartner Ashton Taylor.

Photo provided by Lake Shore Public Schools

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ST. CLAIR SHORES — Their lives have been upended for more than 10 months, and staff and administrators at Lake Shore Public Schools want to make sure students know where they can turn for help with mental health.

“It is important just for them to be able to feel like they’re loved and they’re OK, even if we can’t see each other in person,” said Lisa Pecoraro, physical education teacher and student council sponsor at Violet Elementary School.

That’s why the district recently spent a week focused on mental health for its students, teachers and staff, incorporating special dress days, giveaways, tips and information all focused on social emotional wellbeing.

North Lake High School social worker Allyson Moore said this school year, teachers, students and staff are all feeling disconnected, so they are working to heighten the virtual connection and making the time they do have together face-to-face count.

They are “making sure that we’re talking about, how are you really doing? How are things going? Getting to the meat of things a little bit faster,” she said.

In addition to feeling disconnected, Moore said anxiety has also been on the rise. Even students who thought they would like learning virtually miss being in school.

“Kids that I thought, they must be loving this, then I see them face to face and they’re like, ‘I don’t want to stay virtual anymore. I want to be back.’ I’m looking forward to when it gets to be a choice and not because we have to,” she said.

Lake Shore Public Schools’ return-to-learning plan focused on health and safety, teaching and learning, and social-emotional wellbeing, said Tasha Candela, virtual learning and media coordinator for Lake Shore Public Schools. She and a team of district social workers created Shorian Nation Mental Health Matters Week Jan. 11-15 to spread awareness about the importance of mental health and celebrate the resilience in their students.

Educators were told to make mental health a priority in their plans for education during the COVID-19 pandemic, Candela said.

“It’s more than academics. We’re seeing needs all across the board, and we’re trying to address those things,” she said.

Kicking off the week with tips and messages from the school social workers in the district helped pinpoint the resources that are available for students in the district.

“I think a lot of times kids, they’re kids — they don’t know where to go, and parents, too,” Candela said. “I think people forget that social, emotional and the mental, I think that’s just as important (as academics) because if that is not sound, then your academics most likely will take a dip.”

The week focused on the little things that can be done to make a change.

“We’re not trying to create this grandiose programming,” Candela said. “This is just a low-key effort, a subtle way of sharing information, participating in activities together and just recognizing that we love our student body, we love our kids.”

Pecoraro certainly feels that way. She said she has always done her best to connect with her students and still does, but she only teaches them in a virtual manner now, which makes it much more difficult.

“We talk about ... are you feeling OK and do you feel like you’re sad? I think the kids that are (sad) don’t have the bravery or courage to tell me,” she said. “Google Meet is just so one-sided.”

She said if she notices anything, she tries to reach out to the student to talk more with them, but it’s very difficult to tell how they’re truly feeling behind a screen.

“We all are so lonely, and we don’t get to be with our friends. It’s very hard for me to be apart from my friends, and my kids are my friends and my coworkers,” she explained. “It’s important for everyone to feel like they’re OK and reach out if they aren’t.”

Pecoraro’s student council members created posters with supportive and positive messages to build self-esteem and promote character; they were posted outside different buildings in the district during Mental Health Matters Week.

Over the course of the pandemic, school staff have learned a lot about how to connect with students and families and provide resources, Moore said. A glut of information was being sent out at the beginning, she said, and that became overwhelming. Now, there has been time for the educators and staff to go through the resources and narrow it down to the resources their students are really going to find beneficial.

“Being able to pinpoint some of the resources we send out and making sure they fit the needs of what families and students are looking for and what they want,” she said.

Because everything is so different this year, Moore said the focus on mental health will hopefully reassure students that the adults in their life are working to find ways to make the stressful situation better for them.

“It reassures them that, oh, the adults in my life and the people I see and interact with all the time, they are dealing with things but they also have solutions,” she said. “It’s just a way for students to see, ‘It’s not just me. I’m not the only one who’s feeling anxious.’ There are adults who are anxious and there are others who don’t know how to handle things.”

She said she’s hoping Mental Health Matters Week at least starts the conversation.

“When people find out they’re not the only one, it brings so much relief and, ‘Oh, I can talk about this now.’ If everybody’s talking about it, then people are going to hear that. Maybe they didn’t realize their classmates are also dealing with it,” she said.

Mental health isn’t just something that’s important for distance learning, however.

“Hopefully, this stems to an ongoing trend,” Candela said.

Adrienne Gasperoni, community organizer with CARE of Southeast Michigan and the Shores Network for Action and Prevention, said the focus on students’ mental wellbeing will help them well into the future.

“When youth have a toolbox of beneficial ways to cope with hardships, they are less likely to engage in more destructive choices, such as through the use of drugs and alcohol,” she said. “When youth-centered organizations sink time and effort into teaching healthy social and emotional elements, they are preventing many negative consequences for the whole community, present and future.”

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