Hundreds of boxes are being assembled at Solon Springs School.

Inside are words of empowerment on colorful cards, stickers with positive sayings, stress balls, jawbreakers, journals and instructions for a mindfulness moment or 30-minute yoga routine. The items are small, but senior Hannah Koivisto believes they'll boost student mental health at Solon Springs School. The boxes are part of her senior project. Once assembled, they will be sent home with the district's students and teachers.

One of the cards for the younger students asks them to envision where they'd like to fly to; another encourages them to sit down, close their eyes and tell themselves, "You're very special."

"Which is very important for kids, especially during this time when they're so alone," Koivisto said. "It's very sad because mental health, it still has such a stigma, and people don't understand it. Especially for younger children, they don't know how to deal with their feelings yet. It's really hard for them."

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The box's contents provide positive avenues for students to work out their feelings and focus on other things instead of channeling their feelings into destructive outlets like drug use.

The teen has been planning her senior project since September.

"I decided to do it because COVID-19 has affected so many people. I've noticed that with the deaths that have happened and with, you know, everyone being sad and lonely, it just felt like my calling," Koivisto said. "Because I've struggled with my mental health before, and, I don't know, I wish I would have had something like this when I was younger."

She brought the idea up at a meeting of the Solon Springs Educational Foundation. The nonprofit's board voted unanimously to fund all 380 boxes. Each box costs less than $5 to assemble.

"We still believe the wellness boxes will be a great way to get simple tips for stress reduction and information about additional resources into the hands of students and their families," said Chuck Walt, a member of the foundation.

Even though students at Solon Springs are back to in person classes, the boxes are needed. There's no way to know the overall mental health impact the pandemic closures have had on students, said school counselor Russ Nelson.

"I'm utterly impressed with this one," he said. "I'm proud of her for it. This is a brilliant idea."

The boxes would have offered a boost to students even with a global pandemic, but because of the challenging situation created by COVID-19, they pack even more meaning, Koivisto said.

"It's very difficult for people to sort through their emotions, especially when they feel like their emotions aren't valid," Koivisto said. "I want parents to know that their children's feelings are valid."

Kids are struggling

The pandemic has brought with it an increase in mental health issues as students deal with a year of uncertainty and isolation, educators said.

Douglas County students have transitioned from hybrid to virtual and back to hybrid in the Superior and Maple school districts; Solon Springs has gone from in person to virtual and back.

“The idea of not knowing what's to come I think is hard for anyone, especially for kids who kind of feel like the clock is ticking on things that are really important to them ... and the longer this goes on the harder that's getting for kids," said Breena Kroll, counselor at Northwestern High School in Maple.

Meanwhile, students and their families are being asked to limit contact with people outside their homes to stay safe, which works against our natural inclinations as people, said Jane Larson, a social worker at Superior High School.

“We’re all biologically hardwired to connect,” she said. “Trying to physically distance from one another to stay safe fights our own biology.”

Superior High School has concentrated on a number of suicide prevention measures this year. About 100 posters featuring suicide hotline and text line numbers were hung up throughout the school at the beginning of the year. The administration launched a mental health support group, and officials are in the process of putting together a grant-funded peer-to-peer suicide prevention program.

Lessons on mental health include how to deal with stress or identifying a go-to adult or friend students can talk with if they're having a bad day.

Where to turn

If students need professional help, it might be hard to get. Area mental health providers have months-long waiting lists, Kroll said.

Superior High School tries to bridge the gap until students are able to see a mental health provider, Larson said.

Being involved in sports, activities and clubs can also help students make needed connections, Kroll said. About 80% of Northwestern High School students are involved in at least one activity, which is why staff and coaches have made it a priority to keep as many going as possible, even if they’re in a different form.

Parents, friends and community members can help, as well.

“All of us as a community can work on just talking with our kids, making connections with them, asking them how they're doing,” Kroll said. “And more than just a text.”

Larson encouraged parents and friends to open lines of communication. Find opportunities to talk with them about how they’re feeling, whether it’s sitting on the couch watching TV together or sharing a meal.

“Sometimes we ask how they’re doing, but we don’t ask what they need,” Larson said. “And oftentimes they know what they need — we sometimes forget to ask.”

Hotlines and help

24/7 Douglas County Crisis Line: 715-392-8216

Local Teen HotLine: 715-394-9177

24/7 National Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255

24/7 National Suicide Text Line: text HOME to 741741

24/7 Trevor LifeLine: Call 1-866-488-7386 or text START to 678678

Tips for coping with stress

  • Ground yourself: Grounding yourself in the present can help relieve anxiety, rumination and wandering thoughts. Try noticing something in the space around you with each of your five senses while you take deep, audible breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth. If you have a bit more time, guided meditations are a great way to calm the mind and can be found for free on websites such as YouTube.
  • Cool the situation, literally: Stress and anxiety can naturally increase the body's temperature as a part of the fight or flight response. Try grabbing a cool washcloth and applying it to the back of your neck, or running your hands under cold water for a few minutes to help calm the body.
  • Smile: Increasing positive feelings, in general, leads to a better ability to cope with the negative. Even if you aren't genuinely feeling happy, try a smile. Even a "fake" smile will decrease the body's stress response. Try and build an activity that brings you joy into your everyday life, even if it's something as simple as appreciating your favorite tree on your daily commute.
  • Reach out and stay connected: Take a break and face-time or call a friend, connect with people who make you feel safe and cared for, or care for a pet.
  • Do things that make you feel better: Make music, create art, spend time outside in nature, or practice relaxation skills like meditation, deep breathing, yoga.
  • Exercise regularly - it is a powerful way to fight depression: Aim for 30 minutes a day and it's okay to start small, 10 minutes per day. Walk your dog, or find a virtual or in-person exercise buddy.
  • Watch what you eat: Eat healthy, well-balanced meals, reduce/limit caffeine, don't skip meals and minimize sugar and refined carbs in your diet.
  • Get some sunlight every day: Try for 15 minutes per day. Walk outside, sit near windows, garden, snowshoe, etc.
  • Challenge negative thinking: All-or-nothing thinking, jumping to conclusions, etc. Ask yourself, "What is the evidence that this is true?" and "What would I tell a friend who had this thought(s)?"
  • Use humor: Laughter goes a long way.
  • Talk to a doctor or professional counselor for additional help.

Source: Superior High School social worker Jane Larson