Students and peers know me as a funny and lively student. Education officials across the state know me as a revolutionary student with a bright future. Finally, teachers know me as the student who demands monthly letters home about unsatisfactory grades.
My name is Solyana Mesfin and I am the first student to serve on the Kentucky State Board of Education. I also live with severe, diagnosed depression and anxiety.
There was nothing I feared more than having these two facts about my life in the same paragraph. Depression and anxiety were things that I felt could ruin my reputation, bring me down as a representative, and make me fragile in a space that has no place for frailty.
I made sure to live two separate lives. I was a struggling student in the classroom, but a powerful and outspoken student in the lecture hall.
It has not always been so, but many factors have led to it.
At school, I was always the student who avoided eye contact with teachers to reduce the likelihood of participation. I was the student whose heart pounded in her chest during the discussions. I entered each class with fear and sometimes shame. Despite this, I remained a “model” student. I was in the top 1% of every class, was a pivotal athlete in multiple sports, and prioritized community involvement.
When I entered high school, questions about my position intensified my feelings of anxiety. I remained the only black student in all my classes. At school, I was not expected to progress beyond the bare minimum and I was certainly not supported in my aspirations.
During periods of struggle, I could not confide in those around me for lack of community and fear of exclusion. I was forced to adapt to an uncomfortable and mentally exhausting environment. These experiences were the beginning of many realizations and doubts related to race.
I took this baggage with me when I started student advocacy and education. I inherently downplayed my contributions and criticized my every move. My self-criticism quickly turned my passion into boredom.
Like so many others, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated my mental health issues. Isolation, grief and stress were at the forefront of my daily thoughts. These feelings became so persistent that they affected everything I did. Soon my grades dropped drastically and I had little to no motivation to do anything. Life quickly became a continuous cycle of succumbing to these struggles.
As the school year continued, my mental health deteriorated severely to the point where it became detrimental to my physical health. Most of the time I couldn’t get up to go to school. The combination of depressive episodes, fear, and stagnation made it extremely difficult to feel worthy in any space I entered. I suffered in silence because I believed I had no one to turn to. I despised the idea of asking for help because I convinced myself that no one would understand the true nature of my pain.
As I was barely navigating the school in 2020, I was appointed to the school board as an inaugural student member.
As a first student, I made it my mission to be revolutionary and live up to the title. I made sure that whatever I did during my tenure, I would maintain a strong and powerful presence. I ignored my struggles portraying a successful character while behind the scenes I struggled daily with just being a student.
After years of untreated symptoms and emotional suppression, I was privileged to be admitted to a mental hospital. Through the Jefferson County partnership, patients can benefit from a therapeutic educational environment, completing a specialized version of academic standards and intensive psychiatric assessments and support. During my four-week stay, I was able to be placed on medication and therapy. This is not the reality of every county or even every congressional district.
During this difficult time, we need to have access to mental health services for every student. This is a fundamental goal that every district, trustee, teacher, and student should strive to achieve. We need to break down the barriers that make it difficult for students to get help.
My depression and anxiety made me feel overlooked, ignored and alone. Although this may not have been the reality, this is the message we send to many students. The stigma that persists in our community is a tremendous harm to anyone showing signs of mental illness.
Mental illness is present in all school buildings, all professions and all walks of life. It’s not preventable, nor is it something we can afford to ignore any longer, especially given the pandemic. This may hit you like any other call to action, but I urge you to pull this off.
- Our contribution to society can only be controlled by our will. If our systems continue to prioritize our contributions over our well-being, then they contribute to our decline.
- My mental health journey is NOT unique. Thousands of other students and education workers are experiencing similar difficulties.
- Anyone has the power to influence our system. No matter where you stand in education, your voice and hard work has the power to change perspectives.
I share my story in hopes of convincing others to recognize the seriousness of not addressing mental health. I need you to start the conversation.
Addressing mental illness is not a one-step implementation process. We need to make our resources as diverse as our students. Most importantly, we cannot continue to provide assistance only to students who come forward. I hid my mental illness for five years before seeking help, and other students hid their difficulties for longer.
We need action, not words. Show us that you are making an effort to voluntarily support students. Educate yourself, advocate for policies, set programs, engage in discussions. There are so many paths to becoming a truly responsive and trustworthy actor in education.
A mental health-friendly school building appears to make the well-being of students and staff a top priority. It is a fair affirmation to actively seek out up-to-date and effective resources, to receive guidance directly from students on best practices for implementation, and to ensure that no student is left behind. We need to make school a safe place by changing the discourse and providing access to trained professionals. Most importantly, actions taken to support student mental health must be consistent. This is not a quarterly or semi-annual approach, but rather a daily priority.
There are many different resources and supports you can offer students. All I ask is to know the needs and concerns of the student body and to offer intensive support. Kentucky is a diverse state with different needs for different people and regions, and our approach to mental health must reflect that.
To my fellow students, your story is valid and worthy of action. Mental health advocacy is a fight worth pursuing. Please ask for help if and when you need it. Always remember to put your well-being first, even when society tells you not to.
How to get help
If you or someone you know is struggling with a mental illness, you can seek treatment referrals through the SAMHSA National Helpline by calling (800) 662-4357 or texting 43578 ( HELP4U). You can also get information in English and Spanish by calling (800) 487-4889 any time of day or night.
Solyana Mesfin is a senior at Eastern High School (Jefferson County). She is also a member of the Commissioner’s Student Advisory Council and was the first ex-officio student member of the Kentucky Board of Education from 2020-2022.