School culture affects students’ mental health

By Emma Forshee and Claire Webster

The lunchroom is a space full of chaos and noise. It houses several hundred students who are all trying to figure out who they are and how they fit in. Some students sit with friends or teammates, laughing and talking, while others sit alone. Whether or not a person has a smile on their face, one cannot know what is happening inside of someone’s mind.

Many emotions exist at school, whether it’s anticipation for an athlete’s next game or anxiety over an upcoming test. 

All this contributes to school culture: the way the students feel and the emotions affecting the school atmosphere. 

According to recent data from the CDC, there has been a major increase of mental health issues in teens over the last 10 years. Among other causes, school culture is one thing that affects the mental health of young people, whether it be positively or negatively. Rules and regulations, as well as social standards, impact students’ health. 

Changing Standards

Schedules, routines, and general standards at Bellbrook High School have been shifting ever since the rise of COVID-19 and the chaos that arose with it. Many BHS students said they found it difficult to prioritize school in the midst of such fear and apprehension. BHS faculty and students alike felt these changing standards took a toll on their mental health. 

After the onset of the pandemic, BHS Language Arts teacher Paige Lewis had an epiphany. 

“I know that people have always been having conversations about mental health,” Lewis said. “But I feel like, after COVID, I realized how impactful someone’s mental health can be as a barrier to the education process.” 

The schedule changes from complete lockdown, to hybrid, to online and the constantly shifting expectations served to shed light on the rising mental health crisis. As uncertainty replaced the dependability the school was known for, teachers began to see mental health issues as a larger concern. 

“After 2020, I felt that it reminded all of us [BHS staff] that it is incredibly hard to learn if you have all of these barriers,” Lewis said. “For example, how important does a quiz seem if you’re struggling to get out of bed in the morning or if you’re so anxious that all you can focus on is trying to breathe?” 

Teachers like Lewis now prioritize the mental health of their students by checking in on a regular basis to ask how they are doing. Teachers try to build relationships with students to build trust so students are able to feel comfortable talking about their mental health. 

However, not everyone blames this recent mental health crisis on changes related to Covid-19. 

BHS guidance counselor Debra Sanderman attributes this rise of mental health issues to the American lifestyle in general. 

“I think some of this is pandemic related,” Sanderman said. “But honestly, I attribute a lot more of it to our American lifestyle. Students, in general, have far less resiliency than they used to. They give up much easier and focus less.”  

Changing standards, whether it be directly linked to the pandemic or to shifting pop culture, are affecting young people in significant ways.   

 “Overall, I think we have great students, but these are issues I see much more frequently than I used to,” Sanderman said. 

This rise of mental health issues is serious and calls for stable, dependable regulations to ensure the wellbeing of both students and staff at BHS.  

Standards in School

There are many standards at Bellbrook High School that affect the school culture. It also affects the physical, emotional and mental well-being of the students. 

They are outlined in the Bellbrook High School Handbook and include how the school handles bullying and how students can communicate a problem.

According to the Handbook, “A student can anonymously report concerns by writing a note and leaving it with a secretary, calling an administrator’s voicemail or emailing an administrator. Information should be as specific as possible including time, area, and potential witnesses.”

This can help with a student’s mental health, addressing certain issues without coming out publicly.

“Obviously we don’t have any tolerance for bully[ing]. If a student feels like they are being bully[ied] we will take action. The first step is notifying administration or a staff member, which will start the investigation process,” assistant principal Todd Whalen said.

Another step teachers and administrators are taking to prevent mental health issues is beginning to monitor students’ Chromebooks. This is to help view student’s searches and data history; and it prevents students from looking up explicit information and helps teachers manage what students are really working on in class. 

“[T]the district uses Securly’s 24-hour auditor alert, which tracks bullying and self-harm, amongst other things. Based on the severity of the incident, counselors and principals are notified and reach out to the student,” District Technology Coordinator Matt DeLong said.

Other standards in place to help the well-being of students are block days.  Block days occur every Wednesday and Thursday with 85 minutes periods of half a students’ course load each day. It allows students to manage their time more efficiently, and finish their work for class. 

All students now have a study hall at least once a day because of the block. Study hall gives students the opportunity to catch up on their work, helping to create a less anxious environment and allowing students to maintain their mental health.

“The main priority is student safety and to ensure a productive learning environment,” Whalen said.

Standards in Sports and Extracurriculars

In light of the rise in mental health challenges among young adults, there are several different standards in place for BHS sports to ensure the physical well-being of athletes. 

Extracurricular activities also have standards that help maintain student’s overall mental, physical, and emotional health.

According to the Handbook, student athletes are required to stay in good academic standing and must adhere to certain rules mandated by OHSAA to maintain a healthy lifestyle. 

In addition, “Students with a 1.5 or above and below a 2.0 GPA from the previous quarter may participate on probation but must attend a twice weekly study table as scheduled by the athletic/counseling department.” This gives students the opportunity to sign up for extracurricular activities and sports, even if they have poor grades.

However, when it comes to the handbook, standards regarding mental health are lacking. 

Despite this, many coaches recognize the importance of mental health on their team. This is why some coaches find it so important to prioritize the mental health of the individuals they coach. 

“I prioritize having clear team expectations and rules, modifying practices when needed, and developing good relationships with each athlete,” high school Girls’ Cross Country and Basketball coach Shelby Herlihy said. “Good coaches can recognize when their teams need a physical or mental break.”

Most other coaches at BHS agree with Herlihy’s standards and have their own ways of making sure their team is the best they can be, both physically and mentally. Ken Moyer, an assistant coach for the football team at BHS, has similar ways of addressing mental health issues on his team. 

“We work really hard to grow a culture that’s a healthy environment for students to grow in,” Moyer said. “Part of the components of that healthy culture are that they have to have the freedom to fail. They are a part of something bigger than themselves.”

According to Moyer, the culture on the football team of anywhere from 50-60 athletes allows players to have a family that will support them through anything. The football team is a place where student athletes can find a community that will laugh and cry with them. 

However, coaches such as Herlihy and Moyer expect their athletes to expand their team’s culture beyond the field to the student body as a whole.

“Football plays a prominent role in our institution,” Moyer said. “We want to be leaders in our institution, so we want to be treating people with respect, volunteering to help those in need, and being an example of how people should behave.”

Although meeting these expectations can be a struggle, the culture of teams, such as the football and cross country teams, can affect the overall culture of the school. 

“We don’t have a standard of perfection,” Moyer said. “But, we have a standard of continual improvement.” 

Standards implemented by coaches have an impact on teams which, in turn, can have a positive impact on the student body as a whole by promoting qualities such as confidence and unity. 

All extracurricular activities and sports contribute to the school’s culture by providing the students with an opportunity to give back to the community and the school.

Fifty-three percent of students participate in BHS athletics and are influenced by these mental health policies implemented by coaches, according to BHS principal David Hann. Most of these students employ the same strategies for dealing with failure and problem solving in class as they do while performing. 

“Student athletes are in a unique position in the school,” Moyer said. “We want them to lead and to make the people around them better.”


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