By Sarah Dickie
We put our whole hearts into everything we do here in the NAN Project, but our presentations at Lowell High School in January were especially important to us. Last fall, LHS sophomore Anna Aslanian ended her life, leaving friends, family, and faculty to wonder what they could have done to prevent it. Given the stigma surrounding mental illness, mental health is a topic often left untouched in schools, and students who are
struggling may not know what resources are available to them or how they can ask for help. Our mission is to open up this conversation: our Peer Mentors share their own experiences with mental illness in what we call a Comeback Story, focusing on the symptoms they showed, their coping strategies, and the resources they accessed to help them care for themselves. Lowell High School acknowledged the need for this conversation and brought us in. Over three full days of presentations in mid-January, our Peer Mentors got the chance to speak with all twelve sophomore health classes, accompanied by school counselors and social workers who used the time to introduce themselves as resources for the students.
According to an article in the Lowell Sun, Anna showed signs of poor mental health before taking her life. Her family reported in interviews that Anna had an increasingly negative outlook leading up to the start of her sophomore year. To her family’s surprise, Anna suddenly quit the field hockey team, and withdrew from most other social activities shortly after. This isolation suggests that Anna had been struggling with something emotionally, but articles published following her death puts the blame solely on bullies and the school’s inaction. This seems to be an oversimplification of a tragic event. Rarely is there only one factor to blame for a person’s suicide: often there is an emotional struggle which is exacerbated by the external environment, like the harassment that Anna faced at school and online. The articles discussed local anti-bullying initiatives and how these fell short and failed students, but Anna’s mental health was not given the same consideration. Likewise, coverage on the supports available to Anna and other LHS students was insufficient. These articles also released parts of notes Anna left in the months before her suicide, which we consider a dangerous mistake. Giving this press to Anna’s note suggests to students that taking one’s own life is the way to be remembered, or the way to “get back” at bullies. This can be particularly dangerous for other students who may be struggling and wish to have their “voice” heard.
Though it can be especially difficult to talk about mental health after a loss like this, Lowell High School created an open and welcoming space for us to address it together. The sophomores were very receptive to our Peer Mentors’ stories: many were eager to relate what they had learned to their own experiences, and others had insightful questions about how they might approach friends they thought to be struggling. Several more students came forward privately with concern for themselves or a peer.
“I feel many of the students came away from the Peer Mentor presentations with a better understanding of how widespread mental health challenges are, and also how many resources are out there for them,” The NAN Project’s Director Jake Cavanaugh said of the students at LHS.
Our presentations at Lowell High School reached over three hundred students. We taught them the signs of depression and anxiety they could look for in themselves and their peers, as well as steps they could take to help peers they believe to be struggling: first, ask how the peer is feeling; then, listen, and validate their struggle; and finally, for high-risk peers, tell a trusted adult. We know that in the weeks following the presentations, at least two students who were struggling with suicidal ideation either sought help themselves or had a friend reach out for them. We are hopeful that students will hold onto the conversations we began together, and continue them with their friends and family. We’ll be back at Lowell High School in the spring, preaching our mission There is help, and there is hope!