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Ashland Duo Leads Charge on Student Mental Health

By Tom Stankard,

Reprinted with permission

Ashland High School students Paula Van Vlack and Alyssa Denasha are part of a nationwide initiative on helping kids deal with mental health struggles. They will speak this month to the entire school board. (Tom Stankard/Staff photo)

Editor's Note: This article appeared in the Ashland Daily Press featuring an LCO Tribal Member, Alyssa Denasha, who is the daughter of Ashley Denasha.


Ashland High School students Paula Van Vlack and Alyssa Denasha have struggled with mental health in some way their entire lives.


Going to school during stressful times has only made things more difficult. Even under the best of circumstances, schools can harbor bullies and critics, and the pandemic added even more tumult to students’ lives.


Like most kids, freshman Van Vlack and Denasha, a senior, were reluctant to disclose their struggles, for fear of being ridiculed by classmates or ignored by adults. But now they’re coming out, and encouraging other students to open up as well so they can help one another overcome mental stresses.


Both girls have been selected by school administrators to join peers from across the country in the Centers For Disease Control’s Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child initiative. The effort involves students working with education leaders and heath professionals to improve students’ mental development.


Using the leadership skills that got them selected, Van Vlack and Denasha are helping school districts nationwide learn how to create a space that nurtures students’ mental wellbeing, said Greta Blancarte, the Ashland district’s wellness coordinator.


The two young women have been attending meetings with mental health experts about what needs to be done and what school leaders should focus on. They are set to meet with Ashland school officials at the Jan. 25 School Board meeting to share what they are learning and set goals for the district.


“Some people just don’t understand what mental health truly is,” Van Vlack said. “We are working with staff to help them understand more what students need and help students feel more safe with wanting to speak about it.”


While some students feel at home in school, it can be a tough place for others and cause great anxiety, the girls said.


“It can really hurt someone’s mental health because we have all these expectations that we’re expected to follow. And then we feel really bad when we can’t,” Denasha said.


The COVID-19 pandemic didn’t help things, either, turning the world upside down, said Heidi Kahlstorf, a psychotherapist at Memorial Medical Center.


Shifting from virtual learning to going to back to an actual school building was overwhelming for some.


“Coming out of the pandemic, I went from being isolated to being around 700 to 800 students right away and it is overwhelming,” Denasha said. “You come here and there’s expectations about how you should look, how you should talk and how you should feel. There’s a lot of pressure.”


All that pressure can make students simply feel lost, Kahlstorf said.


“Some are having a hard time going back to high school. It can cause them to feel like they don’t know what to do next,” she said.


Mental health issues for a high-schooler don’t end in the classroom,” Kahlstorf said.


“Back in the day, people passed notes and it wouldn’t follow them home. (Today) they bring it home. What is being said online is being taken as the truth. Those same notes are being taken home on their phones now. Some stay up to midnight on their phones,” she said.


Pressure to act and look a certain way has gotten so bad that schools in Seattle this month sued social media giants Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Snapchat, accusing them of “creating mental health crisis among America’s youth.”


Harmful content pushed to users includes extreme diet plans, encouragement of self-harm and more, according to the complaint.


All those pressures make it difficult for kids to speak up and seek help — or even discuss their struggles.


“Many students are ashamed or feel scared to open because they are scared of what their peers or teachers are going to say,” Denasha said.


And when students do take a risk and open up, it can backfire.


“I’ve tried to speak about something to an adult about something and they didn’t listen and pull the whole adult card. I feel like that’s really what the problem is now,” Van Vlack said.

Their experience so far in meetings with mental health experts, school officials and students as part of the CDC’s initiative has been just the opposite.


“They were actually listening and asking questions and they were giving us ideas, so it didn’t feel like we were being belittled,” Denasha said.


Ashland High School Principal Brian Trettin has been listening to what the two students have had to say and is open to their ideas.


“One is having the school do more lessons about what mental health is. Another goal is having more open dialogue in school. We don’t want to make mental health seem taboo. The more we talk about it the more comfortable we get with any tough thing,” Trettin said.

Kahlstorf said schools that foster an atmosphere in which students are encouraged to discuss their problems are taking the first step toward heling students.


“The more they can contact each other and talk face to-face about it, the better,” she said.


Making students more aware of these issues can encourage them to be more accepting and understanding of one another and create a school where students will not be judged, Trettin hopes.


It all starts with being heard, Denasha said, “I’m hoping when we go to this board meeting, they will listen as much as others have and maybe take some of our ideas, put them into place and try to make school a better place to be for mental health,” she said.


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