Almost five years ago April McKee was killed in Pleasant Hill. The driver of the car in which she was riding was drunk and showing off a new truck when the car crashed, rolled several times and landed on top of McKee.
Hours later across town, her best friend, Heidi Houchins, was awoken by a phone call. It was McKee’s sister calling to tell her that her that her oldest friend was dead.
Houchins said it was the first day of a different life — a life without her best friend. The two had been inseparable since they were 6 and the friendship stretched into their adult lives.
“There are moments in life you can’t prepare for,” she says. “Nothing is going to prepare you for certain moments. I was not prepared to receive that phone call. I was not prepared to look at my boys and say their Aunt April would never kiss their cheek again.”
Her voice still shakes as she talks about McKee. She says it took years to come to terms with her death and even longer to seek help with the depression that followed, but she said it’s important to share her message and her friends story, especially with students.
Houchins recently talked to a gym full of Highland High School students about McKee’s death. She said it was way of honoring her friend while educating students.
The assembly touched on the dangers of drinking and driving but focused on mental health and the stigmas that surround it. A big part of Houchins’ story is coming to terms with losing her friend and accepting that she needed help.
“It’s hard to admit that you feel like everything around you is dark and that you’re never going to find the light again,” Houchin said.
One of the biggest challenges students face during their time in high school is dealing with anxiety and depression and the stigma that keeps them from getting help, she said.
“I see kids who struggle with mental health issues, I see adults who struggle with mental health issues. There is definitely a stigma in our society that kind of makes it look like you’re weak if you can’t handle it on your own.”
More than 2.6 million, or 1 in 20, children ages 6 to 17 in the U.S had diagnosed anxiety or depression, according to a Center for Disease Control and Prevention study from 2012.
Last year, a bill addressing mental health issues in Illinois schools was passed through the state House of Representatives and Senate but eventually failed after then-Gov. Bruce Rauner recommended changes to the bill.
Houchins, who is a counselor at Triad High School, said many students are afraid of talking about their mental health. She said today’s students are faced with a harsher social reality than past generation and that can erode their mental health state.
“They are living in a very fast world where society expects them to grow up more quickly than they’re prepared for and that brings a whole host of issues and a lot of pressure as well,” she said.
The assemblies are part of Professional Learning Community days. Becker said the assemblies give teachers a time to interact with one another and collaborate and gives students a time to have outside learning opportunities.
A few rooms over, in the school’s multipurpose room, Highland Principal Chris Becker talks to underclass students about dealing with the struggles of everyday high school life. He said these assemblies are a way to reach beyond curriculum and into student’s social and emotional lives.
“The whole purpose is to provide that social emotional learning piece which sometimes you may not get in the classroom and academia,” Becker said. “We talk about hope, fighting through adversity, dealing with peer pressure, making good decisions, avoiding alcohol, how to deal with conflict and really how to be the best you and how to make an impact.”
The assemblies typically focus on things outside of the everyday curriculum and bring in community members or someone connected to the school.
Highland Associate Principal Caleb Houchins, Heidi’s husband, said creating a connection with the speakers adds a layer of education to the conversations.
“When they realize there are people in this building who’ve dealt with loss and who are living with people who are dealing with extreme emotional loss I think it adds another layer of education to the kids and it gives insight into a human perspective,” Caleb Houchins said.
Heidi said she stills thinks about McKee every day. She plans on continuing to tell her story at different schools and to different audiences. She said fighting the stigma that surrounds seeking help is a new way of honoring her late friend.
“One of my biggest person passions is expression to people its actually It’s a sign of strength when you can admit you need help and can take that help when it’s offered to you,” she said.