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West Lenoir Elementary students tackle mental health issue

News-Topic - 4/21/2019

April 21-- Apr. 21--At a time when teachers, health care providers and other adults are working on ways to better understand mental health, Marcia Kinley's and Kelly Beavers's fifth graders at West Lenoir Elementary School decided to tackle the issue themselves and find ways to educate classmates on how to understand and look after their mental health.

The students were put on to the idea when a group from Caldwell Memorial Hospital visited their school for a Career Fair last month. They worked with hospital employees throughout their research, and Kinley said that their work will be displayed in brochures at the hospital.

Fifth grader Hailey Poarch said that the classes broke off into committees to conduct their research, putting students in charge of identifying symptoms of mental illness, strategies for coping with mental illness and available nearby resources.

They identified 10 common symptoms of mental illness, such as feelings of sadness or guilt, trouble focusing and trouble sleeping. They used these symptoms to craft a survey, which they took themselves and also distributed to other students at West Lenoir.

Dalton Pitoniak said he was surprised that the survey found that a majority of fifth graders said they were experiencing some of these symptoms and almost half said they would like to learn more about dealing with stress and problem with self-esteem.

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The students also listed local mental health resources, such as Focus Behavioral Health Services, Hancock Health Center, and Helping Hands Clinic, all in Lenoir. In addition to these more formal services, the students made it clear that family members, counselors, or other trusted adults can be used as resources.

Through research in books and online, the students identified coping strategies that could be accessed even without going to a doctor or other health provider. Angelo Clifton said that taking care of your body, avoiding alcohol and drugs, and setting realistic goals are all things that students can do on their own to improve their mental health.

But, there was one more important piece of research, Hailey Gibbs said: "We also had to make a definition for 'What is mental health?' "

Reading from a brochure that the students crafted for their presentation, Hailey said that mental health encompasses "our emotional well-being," and that it is something that changes over time and can have "both positive and negative energies."

The fact that mental health can be both positive and negative was a key finding in their research, Angelo said.

"We learned that mental health and mental illness are two different things," he said.

Kinley said that she found the research to be eye-opening, and the survey results showed that conversations about mental health should be more common.

"We need to be creating a more in-depth needs assessment, and I'm hoping to use their research to update our common practices," she said.

The students also stressed the fact that struggling with mental illness is normal. They concluded their brochure with the reassurance, "In mental health, it's okay not to be okay."

Each student recorded a video to send to hospital workers, thanking them for helping them learn about this important issue. In his thank-you video, Damien Austin said that he was glad that he had the chance to learn about mental health.

"I'm going to use what I learned to help people," he said.

Reporter Garrett Stell can be reached at 828-610-8723.

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