Even though one out of four people are affected by a mental disorder, talking about it is difficult. Despite the challenge of discussing stigmatized topics such as depression and suicide, guest speaker Jordan Burnham combined a heavy topic with humor and personality to catch the student body’s attention and provide powerful information and personal anecdotes about struggling with mental health.
“We have had soley mental health assemblies before, but it’s never really focused. You don’t usually see someone’s perspective or what happened to them, and they usually don’t make it funny, but this speaker did that easily,” said senior Alessia Cito. Cito expressed her relief when the school held an assembly exclusively for mental health, rather than combining it with messages about drug abuse.
Overall, from a Feb. 4 Instagram poll of 137 people, 24 percent said the presentation helped them learn how to assist themselves or a friend who is struggling mentally, 30 percent said that the presentation taught them the importance of mental health, and 44 percent said that the assembly didn’t affect them very much.
This specific guest speaker was brought to EL because of a grant from CT Networks of Care for School Systems Suicide Prevention and Mental Health Promotion. This grant covered the expense of his presentation as part of a joint goal with Waterford to focus on mental health and wellness. Drug and alcohol counselor, Ben Backes, is grateful that the school is discussing important issues such as mental health.
“For a long time, there was this silent suffering when it came to things like mental health and drug and alcohol addiction… Nothing grows in the dark. In a way, it’s important to shine light on these issues and have conversations about them, so we can grow from them,” said Mr. Backes.
There is discussion about having follow up conversation after in-school presentations, especially if the presentation is on a heavy topic.
“I can imagine for a student, a story of someone almost committing suicide can leave a lasting imprint on them for the rest of the day, to say the least. It might be hard for a student to just go back to math class after listening to something as heavy as that,” said Mr. Backes.
Although it could be beneficial for students to spend more time following up on the topics of presentations before returning to class, it is difficult to take away time from “traditional learning,” as Mr. Backes phrased it.
“There was talk about doing an advisory sensitive to everybody missing out on class time … Ultimately, we didn’t do it, but the conversation is always open and we would love to hear feedback from kids that if they felt there should be follow up,” said assistant principal Henry Kydd.
From the same poll referred earlier, 55 percent of students said they wished the school had reflective discussions following the latest guest speaker.
Another element of the presentation that students raised was the environment of the gymnasium with the entire school, rather than presentations in the auditorium with smaller groups of students. The poll of 81 students on Feb. 4, showed that 70 percent of students prefer to have assemblies in the auditorium.
Mr. Backes said that he prefers to have his presentations in the auditorium for a more “conversational” and “intimate” setting, but also noted that having smaller groups of people might not be the most logical way to have presentations. “From a logistical standpoint, it might be more cost effective to have a whole school presentation. Many speakers cost a lot of money and their time is valuable,” said Mr. Backes.
Although the assembly did not affect everyone, it sparked a conversation with some students about the importance of maintaining mental health.
“He told you that you’re not the only one. When you’re going through something like that, you always feel like no one understands you and that you’re the only one,” said Cito. “You don’t have to be super-suicidal to go see a counselor. You can just go see them if you’re having a bad day.”