The City of Ames is an affluent community full of Iowa State University professors and staff. The city boasts one of the lowest unemployment rates in the state: 1.8% in March 2018 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and is continually ranked as one of the best places to live. The Ames Chamber of Commerce website links to 102 lists that date back to 2009 that include “Best College Towns,” “Smartest Cities in America,” Most Livable Cities in America,” and “Best-Performing Small Cities” type lists.
The Ames Community School District also has lists that point to academic excellence. For the past 6 years, the District has ranked as the #1 District in the State of Iowa by Niche. Ames High has ranked as the #1 High School for the past 4 years. All these lists point to Ames’ favorable economy, business climate, cost of living, and sense of community, and they are all true. Ames is a great community, with a great university, and has an amazing school district.
Even in a thriving community, we know that mental health issues exist, both in our town and in our schools. Mental health concerns don’t care about those lists, and they don’t discriminate. Many people have a vision of these students. They are often the ones who are aloof in class, if they even attend. They are chronically absent and have little motivation to complete their class work. They have behavior problems, and simply speaking, they come across as they just don’t care. But this is not at all accurate. Mental health effects all students: the 4.0 students, those popular with friends, the good athletes, and those involved in school and community activities. You might be surprised to find out that 1:5 students will face some kind of mental health crisis during their high school careers. That means that in a class of 25 students, five could be dealing with a mental health crisis at any time.
Now that we’ve identified the students, be prepared to change your perspective on what mental health crises are for our youth. Welcome to Ames High: a melting pot of great students where mental illness works quietly and is not bound by socio-economic status, race, gender, popularity, or anything else. This is the world in which Jean Muhammad operates. She is their Advocate. Listener. Social worker. And in some cases, Life Saver.
Student and Family Advocate
Jean Muhammed is entering her second year at Ames High as the Student and Family Advocate, a position long championed for by Ames High Principal Spence Evans. “I advocated for this position at Ames High because the school was in great need for a staff member whose sole purpose was to advocate for students and work with them on the issues they are dealing with in today’s society. We are seeing a huge spike in mental health issues and we needed someone that could help guide us to make sure our students were getting the help they need.”
The position’s responsibilities were designed to be broad in order to encapsulate the wide ranging situations that may come up. The job description includes providing intervention for students in crisis, individual and small group counseling, consultation with parents and teachers, addressing truancy issues, and making referrals to community services. In reality, Jean’s work encapsulates these tasks, and so much more.
New to Ames High last year, many students did not know who she was or why they would want to reach out to her. This year, that is not the case. She is often referred to as “Mama Muhammad” by students and she rarely finds herself off duty. Students have her cell number and use it any time of day. She will often receive text messages early in the morning, late in the evenings, or on the weekend, with students saying they are having a family crisis, an urge to self harm, or suicidal thoughts. That is the point. These feelings, emergencies, and crisis do not always follow a typical work time schedule.
As an Ames High graduate, Jean always knew she wanted to work in education, and felt like her calling to this role came to her during her senior year. She double majored in Sociology and Secondary Education at Iowa State University and graduated in 1999. Both she and her husband worked as Family Teachers at Boys Town in Omaha, Nebraska, where they lived with and provided residential mental health and behavioral treatment to 8 at-risk teens for 5 years. “Boys Town is widely regarded as one of the best residential youth care facilities in the nation, and I am incredibly thankful for the training I received there. I believe that it set me up for success in all of the positions I have held since.”
She did behavioral skill development and family counseling at LifeWorks, Inc. in Des Moines, as a Family Counselor for Youth Shelter Services, and did Intensive In-Home Services as an IIS Specialist with Cornerstones of Care in Kansas City. In that position, she worked with families at risk of losing custody of their children due to child abuse allegations and worked to maintain children within their family of origin. She later worked for the Department of Human Services in Child Protective Services in Polk County.
Although her career led her down a path primarily concerned with social work, her heart was in education. “When I saw the Student and Family Advocate position post for Ames High, I was thrilled! It felt like the job was created especially for me. It was the perfect convergence of my education, experience and passion!”
Many of the students she works with are initially referred to her by other school staff, but self referrals are on the rise now that they know who she is. “Last year, I made a concerted effort to be visible to students. I spent as much time as possible in the halls between classes, in the cafeteria during lunch, at activities and sporting events. I wanted students to know who I was and what I did. By the end of the year, most of the students that I was working with had sought me out independently. So far this year, that seems to be the case as well.”
They set up appointments with her to talk, and their school “Mama” has become someone who they trust. She knows them. Understands them. Respects them. But with trust comes the challenges of addressing mental health issues. Those calls of crisis are not pleasant and she often fears for the students. She has received calls where kids are in the bathroom contemplating harming themselves, or at 5:15 in the morning saying how they may not be able to attend school due to family issues. “I worry about some of them a lot, because they don’t always recognize that the choices that they are making now can have a lifelong impact for them,” said Muhammad.
Mental Health Statistics
Mental illness is on the rise across the nation. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported that suicide is the second leading cause of death for youth ages 12-18. A nationwide survey of high school students in the United States found that 16% of students reported seriously considering suicide, 13% reported creating a plan, and 8% reporting trying to take their own life in the 12 months preceding the survey. Each year, approximately 157,000 youth between the ages of 10 and 24 are treated in Emergency Departments across the U.S. for self-inflicted injuries. Four out of five teens who attempt suicide provide clear warning signs. Jean’s goal is to understand and recognize those warning signs, and equip students with positive coping strategies.
The rise in teen mental illness is well documented, but determining the underlying reasons behind it is difficult to pinpoint. Muhammad said “It’s like an onion, that when peeled back, only reveals another layer to be explored.” Teens are experiencing more anxiety, depression, self harm tendencies, suicidal ideation, and aggression than before. Some point to an increased amount of screen time in youth and their dependency on social media, and Muhammad agrees that this impact cannot be underestimated. “Current high school students are among the first generation of students to enter adolescence with the majority of students having a smart-device in their hands and we are still learning about the impact of that on mental health.”
Adolescents of every generation endure the challenge of growing up. They are growing physically and emotionally, and are trying to figure out their value system and where they belong. Now imagine doing that on a social media stage for everyone to see and judge. “Imagine taking your middle school bully home with you everyday. Imagine the insecurity from constant comparison with others that goes along with identity formation. Imagine the meanest thing you did to a peer; all of it being made public, all the time. I believe that technology can be a valuable tool. But I worry about kids having too much access, too early and too unsupervised,” said Muhammad.
But correlation does not mean causation, and this rise seen across the country cannot be pinned solely on one thing. For some students, it could be increased parental expectations, or a breakdown in their family structure. Abusive relationships, being exposed to a multitude of opinions online, easy access to drugs, changes to family life, the academic and athletic pressures of accessing the best college opportunities, and financial stressors could all play a role. “It’s never been easy to be a teenager, but it seems to continue to become more challenging for many adolescents.” What impacts one student may not impact another.
For many, it’s easy to simplify mental illness to the behaviors that are visible and judge the people who exhibit them accordingly. We like to slot students, and people in general, into categories. “Successful,” “driven,” and “inspired,” people occupy one side, whereas people who are “lazy,” “stupid,” and “unmotivated,” are the other end of the spectrum. To address mental illness requires the proper perspective to understand the student.
Rather than seeing a student who is unengaged with their course work and ascribing meaning to their disengagement, ask what is happening in their life. Some students work until 10 o’clock every night so they can help pay bills at home. Others are the primary caregiver to their younger sibling during times of the day. There have been situations where students and their families have been evicted from their home. Social media. Abusive relationships. Relationships in general. The reality is that there are times when school is not the most important thing in a student’s life.
We often view students through our lens in life. Substance abuse is wrong, and if we suspect a student of using drugs and alcohol, it is easy to pin all of their problems on that. “Often times, using drugs is one of the only things that they can control in their life, and sometimes kids are using drugs because it’s the only ‘coping skill’ they have,” said Muhammad, offering a bleak glimpse into their reality. Understanding those situations does not make it acceptable, but could change a person’s perspective from judgement to compassion.
Jean is in her second year at Ames High and feels really good about the direction of the team and the resources that they have developed to support mental health at Ames High. The initiation of her position is part of that commitment. “I meet one on one with students for much of the day. During that time, I often assess mental health needs, work on social, emotional, or behavioral skill development, provide crisis intervention, assess substance use, and other mental health related issues. I communicate with parents and outside agencies who are providing services to the student or their families.”
She also points to the culture within Ames High and the nearly 50 clubs that students get involved with. “We know that students who feel connected to their school do better both academically and social/emotionally. Clubs like Spectrum, Mental Health Club, Teens Against Human Trafficking, SACRE, Connect, and others are all providing spaces for students to connect around causes that are meaningful to them. This supports student mental health.”
And the work continues in this area at Ames High, in our community, and across the nation. Jean, along with her many colleagues across all buildings in the District, work with students on a daily basis and live with the knowledge of what mental illness looks like. It’s everywhere. Jean worries a lot. About the students she works with daily, and those she never talks to, but hopes to if they need it.
“I worry most about students who may not yet be identified as at risk. I worry about students who are high achievers, who appear to be doing great, but who might be hurting on the inside. I also worry about our students in underrepresented groups/populations (students of color, LGBTQIA+, immigrant students, etc.). I try not to ever take for granted that anyone could be at risk. I want all students to know that we are available to them, that we are here to listen, that we will do everything that we can to support them.”