Sibley Dunbar was sitting in her room one night in September. Her family was outside around the firepit when she texted her stepmother, asking her to come up to her room. Sibley had hit her breaking point mentally.
She had been distance learning since March with no hope of returning to school in person anytime soon. With that loss of schedule and the isolation, Sibley fell deeper into depression until she finally reached out for help.
“I just poured everything out onto her and she just took me in with open arms and held me,” she said of her stepmother, Stacey Dunbar.
Sibley, a Proctor High School senior, said she was still concerned in that moment about how expensive therapy can be, but her stepmother said it didn’t matter.
“She said, ‘It’s OK, you have something going on and if I have to put my whole paycheck into making sure you get better, it’s going to happen,” Sibley said.
Sibley is not the only student who has been dealing with mental health issues during this pandemic and even before. The Duluth schools district spent spring and summer preparing for students to return to school in September.
Callie DeVriendt, mental health partnership coordinator with Duluth Public Schools, said the district started in the spring making sure every student had access to social-emotional lessons. The district created a website to make mental health support more accessible to students at isd709.org/programs-services/social-emotional-supports.
Climate Coordinator Jacob Laurent said the district worked with the student exec board at each school to find out the best way to get this information out to students as well.
“A lot of times, especially with distance learning, we can think we know what the right answer is, but until we hear from a 17-year-old who is going through it, we might not,” Laurent said. “It’s been very valuable in terms of learning and changing what we’re doing to be able to hit more students, because that’s our goal.
“We want these resources easily available and we want students to be able to access them easily in a nonjudgmental way in hopes of normalizing reaching out for help," he said.
"It’s OK to get help and it’s important to get help if you need it. There should be no shame held in that."
— Sibley Dunbar, Proctor High School senior
Sibley has been using her experiences and voice to bring awareness to student mental health struggles. She's dealt with such issues since eighth grade, but because she was too nervous to speak up, she silenced herself for years.
“I did my best to keep my struggle a secret and put on a happy face so I wouldn’t worry any of my loved ones,” Sibley said.
After hitting her breaking point in September, Sibley realized she wasn’t the only student struggling and silencing themselves, afraid to speak out. So she got to work.
In October, Sibley organized a student march to bring attention to the problems students were facing with distance learning, including time with teachers and mental health issues.
“That was something that meant a lot to me and it got me out of bed in the morning,” Sibley said. “It was something I was doing with my community and if felt really rewarding and good, which is kind of hard to feel when you have depression.”
On a call with U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar on Thursday afternoon, Annmarie Florest, the clinical director of the ADAPT program under Range Mental Health in Virginia, said isolation is one of the biggest issues students are dealing with mentally during the pandemic.
“The isolation is having a significant impact and anybody who had any underlying anxiety is certainly experiencing exacerbated symptoms,” Florest said.
Matt Grose, superintendent of the Grand Rapids/Bigfork school district, agreed with Florest.
“We’ve been charged as school districts to do our best with physiological needs and I think we’re doing as good a job as we can there,” Grose said. “What our kids are missing out on right now is belongingness and love. That happens at school, whether it’s among their peers, teachers or just a bus driver saying 'hello' every morning.”
Laurent said when students are in school every day, teachers and counselors are able to look for changes in behavior that might be a red flag, but now that students are learning from home now, that responsibility falls to parents and guardians now.
“I think it’s just important to recognize when those behavior changes occur and try to seek support even if it’s just checking with a school counselor or school social worker to get their advice,” DeVriendt, of Duluth schools, said.
"What our kids are missing out on right now is belongingness and love. That happens at school."
— Matt Grose, Grand Rapids/Bigfork school district superintendent
Sibley said she wants parents to understand that their students might be struggling.
“Your student is not lazy. They’re not wasting their potential. There is a bigger internal struggle or a bigger internal conflict that they're dealing with,” Sibley said. “If your student is struggling to complete or do assignments on time, it’s not laziness. Nobody drops their basic hygiene or changes their eating habits or falls behind in school for fun. This is a cry for help and they need you.”
Sibley wants students to know that "you're not alone."
“It’s OK to get help and it’s important to get help if you need it,” Sibley said. “There should be no shame held in that.”
To get help
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255
Crisis Text Line: Text MN to 741741
South St. Louis, Lake, Cook and Carlton counties/Fond du Lac Band: 218-623-1800 or 844-772-4742
North St. Louis County/Bois Forte Band: 218-288-2100
Itasca County: 218-326-8565 or 211*
Koochiching County: 800-442-8565 or 211*
(*St. Louis County 211 services are not crisis-related)
If you are experiencing any of the following symptoms, talk to a parent or trusted adult, and consider seeking professional help:
Can't eat or sleep.
Can't perform daily tasks like going to school.
Don't want to hang out with your friends or family.
Don't want to do things you usually enjoy.
Fight a lot with family and friends.
Feel like you can't control your emotions and it's affecting your relationships with your family and friends.
Have low or no energy.
Feel numb or like nothing matters.
Can't stop thinking about certain things or memories.
Feel confused, forgetful, edgy, angry, upset, worried or scared.
Want to harm yourself or others.
Have random aches and pains.
Smoke, drink or use drugs.