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Springfield high school students facing burnout and stress have a place to find peace

Southeast High School student Passion Hood
Rachel Dyas/District 186
Southeast High School student Passion Hood

Passion Hood understands why students might need assistance for mental health concerns during the school day.

Four years ago, the Springfield Southeast High School student lost her mother and needed to see mental health professionals to draw her feelings out. That’s one reason why Hood, the student representative on the Springfield District 186 school board, supported providing a designated spot known as a Peace Room, where students can take a break from the school day to visit with a mental health counselor.

“They’re important because they can cater to students’ mental health needs. If they may not have someone to vent to, let them know their problems, maybe at home or at school, they can always go there,” the 18-year-old from Springfield said.

“People will come into school with family issues –like I had a girl, her mom just yelled at her one day, and she just didn't feel ready to learn. Or you could have problems where you took a test, and it's super overwhelming now. And now after taking the test, you just want to go somewhere and kind of chill out.” she said.

Hood notes the students don’t necessarily even have to talk – they can use the room to take a moment away from a stressful situation.

Counselors from Springfield-based Memorial Behavioral Health were placed at the three high schools in the district during the regular school day, with two beginning on Valentine’s Day and another in March. So far, students have made 255 Peace Room visits.

Anxiety is the most common issue sending students to the Peace Room, said Breanna Kirby, the counselor for the space at Springfield High School. “It can be a kind of social anxiety, more generalized anxiety, or academic concerns, peer relationships. Anxiety is a blanket term for a lot of different issues that they present,’’ she said.

“Maybe it's a life problem that is just kind of overflowing into class. And so it's a way to kind of reset and refresh and go back. It takes them away from the class for maybe 15–20 minutes, but that might keep them in school for the rest of the day,” Kirby said,

“One thing I'm kind of picking up on, is they have a lot on their plate. Trying to manage that life work /balance that typically ( we don’t talk) about until we're in adulthood, I don't think we hear the terms talking about burnout and think of teenagers.”

To help defuse the heightened state, she may have the students do guided meditation, or offer fidget tools like spinners, stress balls or mindfulness activities such as adult coloring books.

“I also have some herbal teas…lavender stress relief tea. I might make a cup of that and just utilize that cup of tea to do some breathing exercises and just get the body regulated enough to where they can return to class, if that's the goal, or figure it out whatever their next step needs to be,” she said.

Most visits last less than 20 minutes, but major ongoing problems sometimes need continued help and the Peace Room counselors can help set that up. Kirby keeps information on other services – like for community health counseling – and provides tips for coping skills at home.

The district pays $45-an-hour for counselors, using COVID relief money.

The idea was proposed last year by Geniece Thomas, previous student board member. But it couldn’t be implemented right away because of funding issues and needing to provide a space, said Terrance Jordan, a District 186 administrator.

‘“We had to identify a person who could provide those social/emotional supports for the students. So, we ended up getting the services through Memorial Behavioral Health, and it took about a year. But we finally got her dream to come to reality,” Jordan said.

Jonathan Ponser, therapist Breanna Kirby’s supervisor said, “I think that mental health needs have definitely been increasing for students. But one of the other things that has changed is, instead of kind of waiting for adults or parents, there's definitely more students looking for themselves and reaching out to obtain those services on their own.”

Maureen Foertsch McKinney is news editor and equity and justice beat reporter for NPR Illinois, where she has been on the staff since 2014 after Illinois Issues magazine’s merger with the station. She joined the magazine’s staff in 1998 as projects editor and became managing editor in 2003. Prior to coming to the University of Illinois Springfield, she was an education reporter and copy editor at three local newspapers, including the suburban Chicago Daily Herald, She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Eastern Illinois University and a master’s degree in English from UIS.
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