Isha Shah (copy)

Isha Shah is now a freshman at Wayzata High School. She is working to break down the stigma around mental health after struggling in middle school.

WAYZATA — The transition to high school is difficult for a lot of young students, and mental health is one of the many challenges that students face as they navigate high school.

Isha Shah, 14, is no exception to this. She noticed a lot of changes in her mood when she was in fifth grade. She would get easily upset, had mood swings and would have a lot of trouble sleeping.

In seventh grade, when the feelings intensified, Shah shared them with her parents, friends and a teacher who was concerned.

For Shah, this is when things got easier. She started receiving help and support, and some of the burden lifted. She also became very focused on the mental health of her fellow students and how the culture at her school addressed topics around mental health, depression and suicide.

“Considering how competitive Wayzata is — and it is very competitive — kids are under a lot of stress,” Shah said. “If we were to have some sort of class on this, a class that was set aside.”

Now, Shah is finishing up the end of her freshman year at Wayzata High School and her focus on mental health has yet to waver. She wants to continue the conversation about mental health with her classmates and her school.

“Me and my friends, we all strive to be the best. That’s what everyone does,” Shah said. “And I have a friend and he was talking about self harm and that was really scary to hear, but what I’ve gone through helps other people because I can be like, ‘Hey guys, it’s OK, you’re going to get through this.’”

Shah hasn’t struggled with her mental health as much since seventh grade when she spoke up about her own struggles with depression to friends and family, and started regularly seeing her school-provided social worker to talk about her depression.

This is one of the unique things about Wayzata High School, according to Amy Nalied, the district’s mental health coordinator. The school uses social workers along with traditional school counselors.

Alpha Teams

The high school is divided alphabetically into three sections — next year it will be four sections because they will be hiring more counselors — and each of those sections has their own Alpha Team. An Alpha Team consists of three counselors, one social worker, one dean, one associate principal and one achievement specialist for students of color.

The point of the Alpha Team is to give students a clear path for who to speak to about certain subjects, giving students multiple adults they can connect with about mental health and other sensitive subjects.

At Wayzata High School, there are nine guidance counselors — a ratio of one counselor to 400 students. Next year, the district will add three counselors, decreasing the ratio to one counselor to every 300 students.

According to Nalied, counselors are available to speak with students about really anything — mental health, problems with friends, family or relationships — but often students don’t understand this and think they are there solely to talk about and change schedules.

While counselors are equipped to deal with some mental health issues, the social workers are there for students who want to speak with someone other than their counselor.

“Social workers can sort of take a mental health intervention up to the next level if they need to,” Nalied said. “[The Alpha Team] works together to make sure the student is connecting with who they feel works the best.”

The middle schools and elementary schools also utilize social workers, but they don’t have the Alpha Team setup.

New this year

One thing that has changed this year in the school district is how it deals with substance abuse, combining the chemical health specialist position into the role than Nalied now holds.

The district is now looking at substance abuse from more of a mental health perspective, although Nalied said this has been a learning curve particularly with the increase in nicotine use in schools due to vaping.

“We’re evolving,” Nalied noted. “How do we handle first-time, second-time vape offenses versus someone who is addicted and can’t come to school without nicotine.”

The school is working with the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, a nonprofit inpatient and outpatient substance abuse treatment center, to provide students with treatment. Someone from Hazelden is on campus twice a week to work with students who may need help with substance abuse or referral to outside treatment.

Mental health education

Wayzata High School does not have any required health courses that teach students about mental health, an issue one in five teens is statistically likely to face, according to the United States Department of Health and Human Services.

However, there are some elective courses that address mental health, such as the class personal and family issues. The course includes discussions on family, mental health, communication and relationships, according to the Wayzata High School course catalog.

The Minnesota Department of Education gives school districts most of the control when it comes to how they teach mental health, Wendy Hatch, a spokesperson for the department, said.

The Department of Education does have a guide on how to implement social and emotional learning in schools. It suggests that social and emotional learning be central to school rather than a stand-alone program. According to the Minnesota Department of Education website, this means districts and schools should work with community partners and families to ensure students receive the support they need.

For Shah and her friends, mental health continues to be an issue they face day to day in the stressful high school environment. Shah plans to keep breaking down the stigma around talking about mental health through her high school career and explore careers related to the topics as she prepares for the world outside of high school.

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