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A Teen’s Plea to School Leaders: ‘Reach Students Who Suffer in Silence’

Anjali Verma’s minute-and-half-long campaign video runs like a highlights reel from the best moments of her teenage life—picnics with friends at her Pennsylvania charter school in West Chester, Pa., swim meets, speaking at student conventions, and hanging with her dog.

But Verma, who was elected to be president of the National Association of Student Councils last month, was quick to clarify that even the Instagram-friendly life teenagers seem to lead online is only half the story.

The other half is the reality of battling mental health challenges that spiked during the pandemic.

“Students are struggling more than we think. And they don’t feel comfortable asking for help. They don’t feel like their school, their community is able to support them,” Verma said. “There’s such a shame behind asking for help.”

By some measures, anxiety, depression and thoughts of suicide doubled during the pandemic. There has been a marginal improvement; mental health-related emergency room visits fell between 2021 and 2022. Still, addressing these needs in students has become a primary responsibility for school administrators.

Verma believes that students can play a strong role, too. Addressing mental health is high on her agenda as the new president of the NASC, a body that represents students councils from across the country, and advocates with school leaders and policymakers on issues that are important to students. The NASC was founded in 1940.

Verma’s approach to the mental health challenge is to get student peers to support each other and make that part of every school’s culture. Students sharing their own stories of battling mental health challenges can ensure that students don’t feel like it’s just them, she said.

“To know that others are going through the same thing, and they understand you, is necessary to defeat the stigma,” Verma said.

She recently spoke to Education Week about herher plans. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What don’t school leaders and policymakers understand about the current state of student mental health?

When it comes to access to mental health support, some students are hard to reach, and we really need to focus on them. They [school leaders] may also need to ensure that students are able to spot warning signs in their peers. We need to make it clear to all students that everyone has mental health challenges and there [should be] no stigma attached to it.

I think administrators need to know that the number of students who suffer silently are more than they estimate.

In addition to mental health, what are your other priorities as the president?

I think student councils can play a bigger role in establishing a positive school culture. They should be doing more than just planning homecoming [dances].

But it’s also about advocating for social change. One of the positions that this NASC cabinet has established is the Vice President of Service, which shows that as a national body, we prioritize community service. So, it gives us an opportunity to work with student leaders in schools to help them prioritize community service on their campuses, and outside it. Student councils can shape school cultures to be more service-oriented.

I want to highlight the role of every student council across the country, whether they belong to small, rural schools or big urban districts. There are a few awards and programs that recognize the efforts of student leaders … we plan to promote and spread awareness about them. Highlighting and celebrating these student leaders will help them play larger roles in improving their schools’ cultures.

We plan to match student council leaders from different schools, create group chats and establish a monthly call so that they can learn from each other. We must make sure that each individual school council sees beyond themselves and that they’re part of a supportive network.

Do school leaders see their students as leaders? Are there gaps in their perceptions?

There’s definitely a gap at the school board level. Not enough school boards have student representatives. But it’s deeper than that.

When students [in a school] have an idea, there’s typically a lengthy process to get it approved and executed, because there’s a lack of communication between students and their administrators. Students need to feel that their administrators are there to help them make changes, that they don’t have to do it themselves.

The other aspect of promoting student leadership is to look beyond the council. Every student has ideas on how to improve their school and need administrators to be open to them. Every student should feel like their voice has worth.

What is your message to your fellow students about how they treat their teachers and principals?

As students, we must recognize that our educators and administrators are superheroes. At work every day, they try and shape the best educational experience for us. Valuing them is necessary beyond just the Teacher Appreciation Week.

To administrators, I would say, “we’re on the same team.” Student leaders share common goals with you when it comes to their own wellbeing. Working together is crucial to make the necessary changes in schools. Everyone, students and administrators, should support each other.

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