The Problem With Telling Students 'Walk Up, Not Out' for the Sake of Mental Health

Sometimes the news isn’t as straightforward as it’s made to seem. Sarah Schuster, The Mighty’s mental health editor, explains what to keep in mind if you see this topic or similar stories in your newsfeed. This is The Mighty Takeaway.


When our nation is divided (and when the internet gets involved), it’s not uncommon for ideas to be labeled as mutually exclusive when really, they’re not.

On Wednesday, March 14, one month after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, students across the nation organized a 17-minute school walkout to honor the 17 people who died in Parkland — bringing attention to government inaction about matters like gun reform.

In response to the walkout, the hashtag #WalkUpNotOut emerged, which seemed to imply that instead of walking out of schools to protest gun violence, students should walk up to other students and be kind in order to foster better school environments.

A graphic going around Twitter, based off a viral status posted by blogger Kelly Guest, reads:

Instead of walking out of school on March 14, encourage students to walk up – walk up to the kid who sits alone at lunch and invite him to sit with your group; walk up to the kid who sits quietly in the corder of the room and sit next to her, smile and say Hi; walk up to the kid who causes disturbances in class and ask how he is doing; walk up to your teachers and thank them; walk up to someone who has different views than you and get to know them — you may be surprised at how much you have in common. Build on that foundation instead of casting stones. I challenge students to find 14 students and 3 adults to walk up to and say something nice in honor of those who died in FL on the 14 of March. But you can start practicing now! #walkupnotout

In a blog post on CatholicMom.com, Guest explained while she knows the movement is an oversimplification, and that it wouldn’t solve “all the world’s problems,” she’s confident it could at least make a difference.

The hashtag wasn’t meant to draw attention from the walkouts, but rather, “to try to get across the point that walking out is not all we should be doing.” While the walkout will only last a day, a “walk up” could be done every day, an admin from a Facebook page inspired by the hashtag told The Mighty

Dr. Dorothy Espelage, professor of Psychology at the University of Florida who specializes in bullying and teacher safely, told The Mighty the #WalkUpNotOut concept was being used in some school districts as an alternative to the walkout, in cases a school felt they didn’t have the resources to protect their students during a walkout, for example.

Although the hashtag (seemingly) was not intended to cause a divide — unsurprisingly, a familiar pattern emerged. Folks on Twitter used the hashtag to undermine the walkout, and explain why focusing on being nice to others, rather than protesting and advocating for gun control, is a more effective way to stop school shootings.

“The supporters will accomplish only two things. 1. They’ll exercise their 1st Amendment right. 2. They’ll get a little exercise. If you really want to stop the next school shooter one Twitter user wrote.

“Walking out won’t help, but this idea gets at the heart of the problem. WALK UP to those who feel marginalized, outcast, ostracized and lonely. Let’s make a real impact by creating caring communities where no one feels alone,” said another.

And here, again, is that false dichotomy, a man-made line in the sand — either you spread kindness in your school or you walkout in protest. Either you support mental health reform or support gun reform.

It puts two things against each other that aren’t naturally at odds. In this case, it avoids addressing an uncomfortable truth: school shootings are complicated, and there is no one solution.

Yes, we should be kind to each other.

Yes, we should support people who are struggling with their mental health.

Yes, gun violence is a public health issue and yes, we should protest and let lawmakers know what kinds of solutions we advocate for.

We can and should do all these things. Gun violence and school safety is a complex issue, there is no simple solution. To pretend otherwise would be foolish.

The conversation surrounding the #WalkUpNotOut hashtag conflates “being kind to others” with “helping people struggling with their mental health.” Of course, we should be kind to others. After all, feeling connected is good for your mental health, and feeling of isolation can lead to depression and feelings of worthlessness.

In 2014, Mother Jones reported that people who are bullied are twice as likely to bring a weapon to school. But in a paper published in 2017, researchers concluded there wasn’t enough evidence to conclude bullying causes school shootings.

On Twitter, author Rachel Held Evans called this point of view “victim blaming,” and said while kids should be nicer to each other — and bullying shouldn’t be tolerated — students shouldn’t feel responsible for their classmates’ mental health. Students, after all, are not mental health professionals, and while they can support each other, and should support each other, peer support doesn’t replace mental health care.

She added:

asks students to take responsibility for the mental health of their classmates, suggesting that school shootings are *their fault* for not being “nicer.” It’s victim-blaming. Stop it.

It’s baffling to me that people think that instead of making it harder for a troubled teenager with a history of violence to get his hands on an AR-15, we should just tell students to “be nice” and hope he doesn’t shoot them. Good grief.

Of course I want to see students reach out to one another and be kind to one another! But offering a hug to a troubled student is not going to magically solve significant mental health challenges where clinical care is needed, nor will it protect against an AR-15…

Ultimately, it’s not an either/or thing. We don’t have to choose between anti-bullying campaigns and sensible gun legislation. We can do both.

Another Twitter user pointed out that engaging with the “kid who sits alone at lunch” for the sake of stopping the next school shooting unfairly stereotypes students who seem like the social outcasts. He wrote, “As someone who was the ‘weird kid’ in high school for reasons that had nothing to do with me wanting to shoot anyone, I’d ask you to please not encourage the entire fucking school to ‘walk up’ to kids who are sitting alone.”

Emily Sheera Culter, assistant editor at Mad in America, who writes about her experiences with bullying, explained why she’s not satisfied with both sides of the #WalkUpNotOut conversation. While we should take more responsibility for one another’s emotional and psychological well-being, she explained, we shouldn’t reach out to people just because we’re afraid they’ll become the next school shooter.

While experiencing emotional distress/“mental health challenges” is entirely unpredictive of a person’s likelihood of committing violence, violence does not happen in a vacuum. People are often pushed to violence when they are made to feel powerless by their school, family, community, and other systemic contexts…

But on the other hand, I don’t know anything that sounds more paternalistic and disingenuous than “walking up” to someone and befriending them because you are afraid they will otherwise commit a mass shooting. The rhetoric in support of the #WalkUpNotOut campaign frames victims of bullying as dangerous individuals who may harm others if they are not treated with care and caution.

I wish campaigns could focus on the fact that everyone deserves love and acceptance — both weirdos/victims of bullying and people categorized as “neurotypical” — because every individual is valuable and has something to offer the world.

There’s a lot we don’t know about preventing school shootings. Much more research needs to be done. But “walking up” to all the kids who seem like outcasts can’t be the only solution. And without government action, simply walking out to make a statement can’t be the only solution either. There is no “one” solution — so for the sake of the “weird kids,” those who’ve been through trauma and loss, the high schooler deep in depression and the sake of a troubled person with access to a high powered weapon — we can’t cling to solutions that cancel others’ out. We need less either/or’s, and more ands.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

Lead photo via Walk Up Not Out’s Facebook page


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