A Local High Schooler Has Become a Voice for Mental Health

This 11th grader at Martin Luther King Jr. High School has a seat at the table.
Photograph by Sal Rodriguez

Perriel Pace has strived to be a voice for her district’s student body, advocating for mental health awareness and advising the Detroit Public Schools Community District school board as a student representative.

An 11th grader at Martin Luther King Jr. High School, Pace is acutely aware of the mental health struggles she and her peers face at school. She notices how the work and stress associated with school, coupled with the pandemic, have affected how successful they are in the classroom.

“If you can’t survive in your head, you’re not surviving outside; you’re not able to do anything else,” Pace says. So how do we change this?

To Pace, the first step is giving a voice to the student body, bringing thoughts from students to the attention of decision-makers. The school board first began including student representatives last fall. While students do not get a vote on the board, they do act as advisers and give input that helps the board make its decisions.

“The board is removed from the schools, so it’s important to be getting perspectives of people in the classrooms everyday,” says school board member Misha Stallworth West, who helped lead the initiative to include student representatives on the school board.

When it came time to select representatives, Pace was encouraged by people in her school and community to run for a student representative position. And sure enough, she got it.

During her time as a student representative — her term ran from March to October 2022 — she strongly supported an initiative to add a session about mental health to the district’s Student Empowerment Experience, a conference that helps support and encourage young leaders, like Pace, while also providing various courses. She says that having this addition discussed by the school board made her very happy.

“I felt like we were finally being seen, … and I felt so proud to speak up and mention that we add this to support our students,” Pace says.

Her contribution didn’t go unnoticed. Stallworth West says that Pace was helpful in providing direction, giving input on what important issues needed to be discussed more by the board.

One thing Pace sees as lacking is the amount of social-emotional learning taught in schools. Pace says that at her previous school, Legacy Academy, the first two weeks of school were dedicated to building relationships, working in groups, learning together, and ultimately creating a foundation for the atmosphere of the school.

She says that creating strong relationships helped establish a level of trust between students and teachers. Pace noted that after they focused on social-emotional learning or SEL, fewer fights broke out and students treated each other more positively.

“Social-emotional learning involves teaching students about self-awareness, self-management, social skills, and responsible decision-making,” says Robin Tepper Jacob, faculty co-director and founder of the Youth Policy Lab at the University of Michigan.

Tepper Jacob has helped lead the lab’s various research projects, including Transforming Research into Action to Improve the Lives of Students — better known as TRAILS. The TRAILS program includes three tiers, which focus on teaching social-emotional learning skills to students at varying levels of need.

Tepper Jacob says the program is practical and easy for teachers to use, adding that SEL programs in general are most successful when the entire school is involved in learning and teaching the skills. This means that when lunch monitors, bus drivers, custodial workers, and other school staff, in addition to the teachers, are involved, students have more productive relationships at school.

And while social-emotional learning isn’t the same thing as learning about mental health, the skills acquired through SEL instruction help students be more mindful and self-aware. They’re the types of skills Pace thinks could help students feel more comfortable and emotionally safe in school.

“This is the stuff that I feel should be brought into every high [school] just to help students,” she says. Having relationships — in essence, building those interpersonal skills through SEL — can improve mental well-being.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health awareness has been on the rise, but Stallworth West points out that as with many systemic issues, the need for mental health support has always been there.

“The pandemic did not reveal the need for student mental health support; it amplified it,” she says.

Pace herself is still adjusting to in-person learning post-pandemic. Her mental health suffered during the pandemic, and coming back to school, she notes that she wishes teachers were more understanding toward students.

When people are at their breaking point, they need others there to support them, and Pace encourages students to be each other’s support systems. She believes the little stuff goes a long way.

Many in the Detroit Public Schools Community District have begun integrating SEL programs like TRAILS, but Pace still sees a need for improvement. She’s encouraging the start of a mental health week at her school.

A big piece of this would be focusing on connecting with other students as well as encouraging students to focus on understanding themselves. Normalizing something like a mental health week, she says, is a step in creating more awareness and advocating for more resources.

This story is part of the 2023 Health Guide. Read more in our Digital Edition.