Mindfulness Matters: Aurora's day devoted to mental health helps seniors recharge, find balance

Mindfulness Matters: Aurora's day devoted to mental health helps seniors recharge, find balance

By Tyler Dahlgren

In typical years, Aurora holds a career day in October, sending its seniors off on college visits and job shadows while inviting representatives from area industries into the high school to talk with the underclassmen.

With this year being far from typical, and with the career day bumped to the back of the pandemic’s long line of postponements, high school principal Doug Kittle and ESU 9 mental health clinician Emily Hoegh instead held themselves a conversation on what to do next.

First, they settled on February 17th. Next, they faced the fact that by then a majority of their seniors would have plans made, a college selected or a field of work squared away. What the seniors really needed, Kittle thought, was a day to focus on themselves.

Kittle approached Hoegh with the idea for what would become the first annual “Taking Care of ME Day” in Aurora. Hoegh took the ball and ran with the idea, reaching out first to ESU 5 Director of Mental Health/Wellness and psychotherapist Jen McNally, known throughout Nebraska and beyond for her keynote presentations on the importance of mental health.

“We had Jen come out for our staff in August, and she did a really great job and made an impact on them, so we knew right away who we wanted to keynote,” said Kittle.

In addition to McNally, Hoegh scheduled four different break-out sessions for students to attend throughout the day, calling on two ESU connections (Cole Stark, ESU 5 and Barb Fischer, ESU 9) and two community professionals to round out the event.

“I’ll be honest, I was nervous,” Kittle admitted the day after the event. “I knew the kids would respond really well to Jen because I’ve heard her present and she certainly didn’t disappoint. I was concerned, though, with how the kids would respond to the entire mental wellness theme.”

The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. Kittle sent out an evaluation to 93 seniors Thursday morning, and by the afternoon had received four and five star reviews (on a five star scale) across the board.

“I was really excited about what I was seeing happening in those sessions and how kids were responding,” said Hoegh, who is in her first year working with the Aurora district. “After the sessions, the seniors were coming up and asking us really good questions and telling us how much they needed this day. It really got them thinking about how to take care of themselves.”

McNally, whose tone-setting keynote was the first item on the day’s agenda, was thrilled to be a part of such a forward-thinking event.

“Not often do you get school districts to devote an entire day to mental wellness, physical wellness, emotional wellness, spiritual wellness and whatever else resonates with kids,” McNally said. "I was so glad to be a part of such a great event."

Mindfulness matters, McNally explained, especially under current circumstances. In preparing Wednesday morning’s keynote, she utilized common language to connect with students the same way she connects with staffs.

“When you’re sick and your body is not feeling well, you rest,” McNally said. “We need to also let kids know that mental health is also a powerhouse, and those have to be in-line. I could just see light bulbs turn on in their minds when we were talking about the connection between mental and physical health, how everyone has both and how everyone has good days and bad days.”

The seed for the “Taking Care of ME Day” was likely planted in Kittle’s mind last spring, during a nine-week stretch he hopes he’ll never have to endure again. Closing school, assuming the role of bearer of bad news when it came to the cancellation of sports seasons, proms, concerts and other extracurricular events and then watching his student body struggle with what was going on was a nightmare.

Schools re-opened this fall, but Kittle saw a timidness in his students those first five to six weeks. They walked through the halls like they were walking on thin ice, waiting at every turn for the plug to get pulled, just like it did in March.

“There were a number of students who, had we been in session last spring, we wouldn’t have thought of them as needing any emotional support at all, but taking the building and activities away, and their interactions with peers and teachers away too, it created mental health issues for students that never would have had any issues,” Kittle explained. “Those things were surfacing at the beginning of this year, too, when we began having conversations and putting this day together.”

The grind of being a student tends to go overlooked or understated. Balance is easily lost in hectic schedules, difficult classwork, relationships and other activities. Like adults, many kids are up a couple hours before the sun rises and don’t return home until long after it has set.

“We don’t seem to give teens the same grace and empathy that we give each other, our colleagues and spouses and friends,” said Hoegh. “We give them these little pep talks that are supposed to help them keep going, but we would never say those things to one another. We tell each other ‘Hey, you’ve got to take a break. You’ve got to take care of yourself.’ Then we turn around and tell kids ‘Well, you chose this path. You’re the one that signed up for these things.’”

In a “Go! Go! Go!” world, Wednesday offered a chance to recharge. The students weren’t shy in voicing their appreciation for the reprieve. Their parents weren’t either.

“Aurora is an extremely proud community, and I was a little nervous as to what kind of parent communication we were going to receive after sending the informative memo out explaining what we were doing and why we were doing it,” Kittle said. “Any feedback was positive. I think the stigma is gone for us.”

Aurora has been intentional in its efforts to destigmatize mental health for three years now. The building is a safe place to land for students dealing with things under the surface. Though she doesn’t work directly with the district, it didn’t take McNally long to recognize that. She could see it on the faces of 93 seniors in attendance Wednesday.

“It’s okay to not be okay, everybody has mental health, and when you have days like they just had hearing from speakers like me and others who are passionate about that, kids know when you’re being authentic and they resonated with us,” McNally said. “They’re appreciative when you talk with them and not at them, and I think that’s a big difference here.”

Kittle sees the event growing in coming years, especially as awareness around mental health continues to rise. The timing for a mood boost couldn’t have been better, either, with Mother Nature throwing dangerously cold temperatures into an already-deep pool of challenges.

“January and that first part of February is a great time for an event like this because the doldrums of winter have set it,” said Kittle, who was curious how bought-in students would be returning from a pair of snow/cold days. “They came in enthusiastic and ready to go. This half-day program was so worth our time that I see it becoming an annual event.”

An endless row of green lights line the road for high school seniors. They fly through one after another after another until suddenly they’re holding a diploma and facing the rest of their lives.

The class of 2021’s road hasn’t been paved smooth and it certainly hasn’t been a straight shot.

For one morning in Aurora, those lights lingered on red, at least for a little while.

When it comes to self-care, even a little while can make a world of difference.