With a sparkling crown atop her head and her sash of office around her shoulder, Miss North Dakota looked every bit like a storybook princess when she spoke to groups of middle schoolers in Dickinson on Thursday, Feb. 22.
What she had to talk about was no fairy tale, however.
“Because of how bad my bullying became, I developed depression and anxiety,” Jensen said. She directed the children to stand up, the whole assembly, to illustrate her point. The students were to represent the whole student body of North Dakota, and she had only a small portion sit down, explaining that those standing—some 90 percent—represented all the students who would be bullied in North Dakota.
Jensen illustrated that not only are a portion of students subject to bullying, a portion of that portion suffer even worse consequences, including developing “suicidal ideations.” Once said aloud, the atmosphere in the room shifted, and murmurs rippled through the crowd.
“It’s serious,” Jensen said. “Suicidal ideations are when people think about taking their lives. It comes to a point where they think they shouldn’t live anymore because of how severe the bullying becomes.”
Every single day, Jensen said, 123 people die from suicide, a statistic supported by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
“The reason that I bring this up, the reason that I want to talk about it, is that I was a person who struggled with those thoughts,” she said. “I was a person who struggled with wanting to hurt themselves every single day.”
Jensen’s bullying chased her from a North Dakota high school to a North Dakota university, and she recounted how her new friends were turned upon her due to lies spread by former high school bullies who persisted.
“Because of those people who turned on me, my depression became worse. I became incredibly sad,” Jensen said. “I had to find a way to get myself out of it. I developed something called mental illness.”
Jensen has been doing a circuit of talks to public schools all over the state, and the recent school shooting in Florida which left students and teachers dead weighs on her. She expressed her concern about pending education budget cuts, and the stigma that mental illness carries in the United States.
“After Florida I went into a deep dark search … because I was frustrated, and I learned that there’s going to be $7.1 billion cut from the Department of Education this next 2019 fiscal year. Almost $10 million of that will be taken away from … North Dakota,” she said. “We need to start funding schools more. We need to give them the support they need. There’s a lack of talk about mental illness. There’s that stigma with it. That’s why I tell my students, it’s OK not to be OK.”
Jensen sees value in opening the possibility to discuss mental health, a topic she views as relevant to even young students.
“Just within this last presentation, I had four people come up to me and tell me they were struggling,” she said. “I immediately had the principal walk them to the counselor’s office to talk—that’s the most important thing for these students, to talk about it.”
Though her talks are valuable, Jensen feels a holistic solution, community-driven and with responsibilities shared by everyone, is best for raising healthy children.
“I always say it takes a village to raise a child and we can’t pinpoint that it’s always the parent’s responsibility when they are outside the house, it’s only the teacher’s responsibility when they are inside school—I think it takes all of us to be involved in an individual’s life to make sure they are getting the best support they need,” Jensen said. “Teachers … don’t get paid enough in the first place to be a counselor, to be a best friend, to be a one-man-band doing 140 things. They just don’t get paid enough.”
Dickinson Middle School Principal Marcus Lewton said that Miss N.D. reached out to the school to do the talk, but that the school itself values bringing new perspectives to the children.
“I think it offers a different perspective. Teachers, counselors, principals, parents, cooks, janitors, bus drivers are all trained to have positive relationships with kids … but sometimes it takes an outsider,” Lewton said. “We try to get as many people from the community in our school. Two weeks ago we had the career fair, which had 36 different people from the community in our school.”