Starting a dialogue about mental health at Oceanside Middle School

Program aims to erase stigma


With school safety at the forefront of discussions in districts across the country, Oceanside Middle School administrators began a schoolwide read-aloud program this fall, using a novel in the hope of erasing the stigma associated with mental illness.

“We chose this approach to changing our culture using literature because we know that literature changes society, and these students are our next generation,” Principal Allison Glickman-Rogers said, “and we hope that they’re not burdened with the stigma of mental illness like our generation was.”

The school was awarded a $5,000 grant by the New York State Office of Mental Health to conduct the program. Glickman-Rogers said that after researching many novels focused on mental health, administrators chose “The Science of Breakable Things,” by Tae Keller, which, she said, struck the right balance, educating students on the signs of mental health issues while not being too graphic, avoiding themes such as self-harm.

The novel focuses on a middle school-aged girl named Natalie, whose mother, initially vibrant and outgoing, spirals downward into depression and stays in her room all day long. The book follows Natalie as she helps identify the signs of her mother’s issues and tries to help her overcome them. Keller, who grew up in Honolulu but now lives in New York City, released the book in March, and the book review magazine Kirkus Reviews named it one of the top books of the year. Glickman-Rogers said students relate to the characters, even if they aren’t suffering from mental illness themselves.

The program kicked off on Back-to-School Night on Sept. 25, and will culminate when Keller makes an appearance at a school assembly on Dec. 11 and a meet-the-author event open to the community the following night, from 7 to 8 p.m. Funds from the grant were used to pay for the books and for Keller’s visit and travel expenses.

Her book rotated through many classes in the school, including English, social studies and math, and students in each of those courses read two chapters. The purpose was to show the students that they have many teachers to turn to if they or a family member are having issues with mental health.

“It, again, shows the children that they’re not alone, and that this is a safe conversation to have with anyone in the building,” Glickman-Rogers said. She added that parents were also encouraged to read the book with their children and discuss the issues it raises with them.

The State Education Department recently mandated that health education in schools include mental health. Asked what the book has taught him so far, student Ryder Weinstein said, “Don’t always think the worst — there’s always hope.” Another student, Chelsea Martinez, said she was able to feel the main character’s emotions and connect with her, while another, Jennifer Turcios, said the book showed her what goes on in the mind of someone suffering from depression.

Though the program is limited to the middle school, Dr. Beth Zirogianni, the district’s director of language arts, said that conversations about mental health begin at the elementary level, and it is a topic of emphasis in the high school health curriculum.

“I think it’s important to continue to raise awareness and make sure the students recognize that there are a ton of adults in the building from whom they can get support,” Zirogianni said. “Having the dialogue with social studies and other teachers helps widen the net of who they know they can turn to if they’re having issues and are in need of support.”

She added that the goal of the program is to help students recognize signs and symptoms in themselves or others, and to know where to turn for help. OMS teachers and staff members were trained last year to identify students’ problems and to work productively with them to combat mental illness. They were also given strategies to monitor their own mental health. The school recognized Mental Health Awareness Week in May, and began focusing on the topic then. In addition, every student at the school meets with a guidance counselor once every six days to discuss how things are going and address any issues.

“I think it’s beneficial, from the perspective that mental health is something that isn’t always easy to discuss with students at the middle school level,” Zirogianni said. “Using literature as a vehicle to drive that conversation helps students look at multiple perspectives and learn more about de-stigmatizing mental health issues.”

Zirogianni went on to say that members of the staff have described students coming to them to share personal experiences and create a dialogue about issues they have dealt with in their lives because of the program. Glickman-Rogers said she hoped the program would help prevent students from turning to drugs or alcohol to numb their feelings. She also praised the school staff for willingly joining the program.

“I would like to note how proud I am of the teachers and their willingness to put down their lessons to send this very powerful message to the students,” she said. “This is a safe environment, a safe place for them to talk to adults and seek the help that they need. It sends a very powerful message to our students.”