Many adults shudder to think back on their high school years, with closed-off cliques topping the list of bad memories. But a group of students at Putnam City North High School wants to turn the high school experience on its head, creating an atmosphere where inclusion and compassion reign.
Taleaha Lee and Bella DeGiusti are seniors at PC North who’ve developed a new club to normalize discussion about mental health and subsequently encourage kindness. Inspired by psychology teacher Brooke Fonzi, Lee founded the school’s psychology club last year after a particularly startling lesson in the class’ unit on mental health.
Fonzi asked her students to respond to a single question: How has mental illness affected you? Using an online app, the students’ real-time, anonymous answers popped up on the classroom board for everyone to see.
“I only had two out of more than 125 students who answered ‘it hasn’t,’” said Fonzi. “I saw everything from personal struggles, hospitalizations, suicide attempts, rehab and parent neglect due to parents’ mental illness. It was powerful.”
DeGiusti, who’s experienced the challenges of mental illness in her family, was shocked by her classmates’ responses.
“I know I’m going through stuff personally but to see that not just ‘some’ people but literally everyone is going through something similar was crazy,” said DeGiusti.
Fonzi hoped to relay two messages to students: first, if you are struggling, you aren’t alone; and second, since you have no idea what’s going on in someone else’s life, treat others with grace, kindness and understanding.
The psychology club’s first order of business was brainstorming ideas for a week of Pawsitivity (PC North’s mascot is the panther).
The same question Fonzi posed to her psychology students was presented to the whole school with answers recorded anonymously on notecards. The psychology club turned those answers into a video, with students reading others’ statements, like: ‘I have tried to kill myself but no one knows,’ ‘My family is homeless,’ ‘I can’t sleep because of extreme anxiety,’ ‘I get made fun of for the way I look.’
“We don’t always relate to people when we don’t know them,” said Lee. “We wanted students to hear from other students they have seen in school. That made people pay attention.”
Students created a week of activities to inspire kindness, like signing kindness pledges, filling out Pawsitivity notes for other students and writing letters of gratitude to teachers. Dress-up days highlighted mental health awareness, eating disorder awareness and suicide prevention. Students wore cardigans as a nod to Mr. Rogers, and more than 100 students purchased “Be Kind” shirts, with proceeds funding the week’s activities. Lee’s favorite part was a spontaneous student body singalong in the lunchroom.
DeGuisti says while high school students are typically self-involved, this exercise caused them to look outside themselves.
“Everyone has feelings and we need to pay attention,” said DeGuisti. “Everyone deserves the same amount of care, love and respect.”
While Fonzi reminds students they should always be kind regardless, their heightened awareness gives her great hope for the future.
“The more this is talked about in school, they will grow up and be adults who teach their families, people they meet in college and their coworkers,” said Fonzi. “They have become such an example to other students of how to treat others.”
There is a movement in Oklahoma to encourage more education and better access to mental health resources, but DeGuisti wishes adults in particular were more open minded.
“People can be quick to brush [you] off and say ‘get over it,’ ‘it will pass’ or ‘just be happy,’” said DeGuisti. “That’s not how it works. People can be depressed and there’s not always a logical reason. We need more understanding, more genuine listening and trying to understand.”
The duo feels the media attention they’ve received is a positive step toward educating the community about the importance of students learning about mental health. Thanks to KOCO Channel 5’s “What’s Right with our Schools” segment, the students received $600, which will be used for a second Pawsitivity Week during spring finals.
Lee and DeGuisti are proud of the legacy they’ve created and hope the club and Pawsitivity Week continue to grow. What they’ve learned and what they leave behind is very personal for the two seniors.
Lee calls her home life very different than school life, and she’s grateful for teachers like Fonzi who are willing to both educate students about mental health and provide a listening ear.
“Teachers willing to listen to my problems and give me the opportunity to speak up about certain things makes it easier,” said Lee, who plans to attend OU or UCO after graduation. “I’m not sure what I want to major in, but I know I’m going to change the world.”
DeGuisti, headed to OSU in the fall to study mass communications, lives with her grandparents due to her mom’s substance abuse and dad’s mental health challenges. She’s learned it’s OK to be open about her experiences because it might help someone else who is struggling.
“I’ve learned to power through and find support,” said DeGuisti. “It has affected me personally, but it doesn’t define me or stop me from being successful.”
Watch the video the students created at www.metrofamilymagazine.com/