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Victoria Noble: Empowering student journalists

By Victoria Noble, Columnist
Published May 28, 2014

Trigger warning: mental health issues and substance abuse

There are so many things I find interesting (read: downright strange) about culture here in good old America. The one that I really struggle with the most, though, is our bizarre tendency to, for lack of a better word, baby young adults. It’s a sheltering mechanism as far as I can tell, which we use to protect youth from the massive, terrible problems of our world. But childhood isn’t all it’s cracked up to be either, and Americans kids have all sorts of problems unique to their age group and generation. Who should solve those problems? Why the kids, of course.

Too bad schools aren’t letting them. Instead of allowing students to openly discuss, the source of all truly decent solutions, difficult problems like adolescent mental health, academic stress, substance abuse and bullying remain wholly unsolved and partially unaddressed. Herein lies the problem: all those adults contemplating these issues already made it through their teenage years. No wonder so many adults write them off as “part of growing up.” There’s a selection affect at work — those suffering the most can’t be part of the solution when the adults are in charge.

Madeline Halpert and Eva Rosenfeld, two students at an Ann Arbor high school, noticed that despite the fact about one in four American adults have a diagnosed mental disorder, it’s still difficult for so many to talk about, especially in high school. The absurd, illogical and damaging stigmatization silences personal stories on the subject. So, disconcerted with the absence of personal experience in the mental health discussion, Halpert and Rosenfeld strove to use their positions as managing editors at their high school newspaper to change the nature of the debate. The girls, with help from other members of staff, compiled the stories of several students’ mental health struggles including “prescription abuse, drug addiction, insomnia … and mainly depression,” Halpert said in an interview with The Daily.

Awesome right? Here are two girls working to combat one of the deadliest problems facing their demographic. However, their school administration disagreed. The dean of the school didn't support the project, Halpert said.

“She didn’t want to risk student’s safety in any way. Our dean said that she talked to a mental health professional, who said that reading about depression could possibly trigger another occurrence of it," she said.

Apparently they’ve never heard of trigger warnings. Halpert and Rosenfeld wrote an opinion piece discussing their own struggles with depression and their school’s refusal to fight the stigma associated with the disorder, which the New York Times decided to publish.

Halpert and Rosenfeld wrote in their op-ed that they were “shocked” by their dean’s response, but I can’t say that I really am. When I was in high school, a piece that I wrote was met with similar disapproval. The article chronicled the explosive rise in student use of K2, a formerly legal synthetic marijuana substance that can cause severe, violent reactions in some users. I interviewed a student who gave a personal account of being high on the drug. I later found myself in the principal's office, and eventually removed pieces of the article linking the student, and effectually the school, from the substance abuse problem. A year before I joined my high school’s paper, the same principal directed writers to remove personal accounts from a story about student depression.

Prior review and restraint is more common than many realize. Supreme Court decisions on Tinker v. Des Moines and Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier expressly allow school administrators the option of prior review and prior restraint. But, by overextending this power, school officials are silencing student voices.

I identify with Halpert and Rosenfeld. They tried to do what educators, public health advocates and even this opinion section have called for: opening the discussion about difficult student health issues. The American media has a gross tendency to wrap the high school experience up in pretty paper, marketing partying clichés to the public. But, for many students, this could not be further from their felt reality. The dissonance between what students feel at, or caused by, school and what they are shown by countless media messages can make students feel even more depressed, abnormal and alone.

Because the propensity to misrepresent is so large, student media has the obligation to correct the inaccurate characterizations of their experience. High school is different for everybody, yet, in a way, common threads — both light and dark — run through the student experience. If a student athlete were injured on the field, I doubt that administrators would forbid the school newspaper from covering it. But if that same person were to reveal they suffered from depression? The quotes, anecdotes and emotion would be severely restrained at so many high schools like mine. Through this double standard, high school officials contribute to the horrifying mental health stigma that their students have their courage and will to solve.

More importantly, schools need to prepare students to think independently and challenge the tenants of society. Prior review obliterates student responsibility, their ability to challenge power relations and lead discussion on issues at their school. If we don’t allow and encourage this type of engagement in high schools, what kind of adults can we expect these students to become? Student journalism is undeniably a venue for promising discussion. It’s an important outlet to open and set the tone for so many other forums. High school is more than academic preparation. Students should graduate with deepened understanding and empathy for the broad array of difficulties that others may face.

Several states including California and Massachusetts have broadened the rights of student journalists beyond the editorial purview that the Supreme Court has denied them. The Michigan legislature must, within the confines of recent judicial interpretation, specifically enumerate certain rights to which student journalists would be entitled. Among them must be the right to, with consent of the student and their parents, publish appropriate personal experiences. In order to widen acceptance for those suffering from mental health disorders, it’s imperative that students understand the personal nature of the illnesses. Instead of further isolating those suffering, student media should be allowed to equally represent all experiences.

Victoria Noble can be reached at vjnoble@umich.edu.


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