Mental health has always been a challenge for high school students, with stressors such as interpersonal relationships, social media and academics – all while they are growing up and discovering their identities.
Struggles are common; 1 in 6 U.S. youth ages 6 to 17 experience a mental health disorder each year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated this problem, leading to an increase in adolescent depression, anxiety or even suicidal thoughts.
A national poll conducted by C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital found that 46% of parents surveyed noticed a decline in their children’s mental health after the onset of the pandemic.
Country Day has mental health education integrated into the lower and middle schools; middle schoolers take classes in Social Emotional Learning, while lower schoolers participate in educational activities as part of their day-to-day school day.
However, in the high school, students must seek help on their own from staff such as those in the Academic Resource Center who can work with students to find the help they need, which may include referral to outside resources.
While a Social-Emotional Learning class was previously required for freshmen, it has not been offered since 2019.
Student use of mental health resources
Country Day sophomore Grace Zhao, who said her mental health has suffered recently, has used both school and outside sources.
“In ninth grade, I was doing just fine, and then quarantine rolled around,” Zhao said. “I think it was just the perfect storm of bad stuff that I didn’t know how to deal with.”
The decline in her mental health caused her to miss classes and struggle with coursework during remote learning in the 2020-21 school year. Things only got worse after she was able to return to campus.
“There was a point where I was trying to be a sophomore last year, but it just obviously wasn’t cutting it,” she said.
As a result, she went on medical leave for the latter half of the year and repeated sophomore year.
She said the school provided support throughout the year.
“They arranged that on some days, I could just come to school, and if I didn’t have class, I could just sit in the gym,” she said. “Just being in a different environment helped me focus because I couldn’t get work done at home.”
Zhao talked to an outside therapist, who told her she could be suffering from adjustment disorder, which, according to Johns Hopkins, is caused by a sudden upheaval or stressful change, resulting in depression, anxiety and feelings of hopelessness.
For Zhao, upheaval caused by the pandemic was a major factor. Because of this, she also met the school’s Social-Emotional Counselor and Educator Pat Reynolds, who has a master’s degree in educational counseling. Reynolds is not full-time; she works a three-quarters time schedule from 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., and is also able to meet based on the appointments and needs of students.
Zhao also used Country Day’s Academic Resource Center, or ARC, for help with homework.
The ARC — staffed by Learning Specialists Adie Renteria and Taratip Adams, and Reynolds — provides academic and social support to students.
Zhao said the resources and accommodations made for her by the school were helpful, but ultimately not extremely useful.
“I emailed one of the teachers about ADHD resources because that was something I was looking into a while back, and she just sent me a bunch of planner stuff,” she said about help from the ARC. “But it was kind of ironic — it’s like, the whole point is executive dysfunction, right?”
However, she acknowledged that some of her issues had to be solved on her own.
“I just had to sort of go through that stuff myself, but they tried,” she said.
Academic and emotional support available
ARC’s Adams, who works with middle and high school students, said her role is primarily to provide academic support.
“Kiddos come to me if they need help organizing materials, creating study tools or need somebody just to vent to about issues that they’re having,” Adams said. “I am a good starting point for that conversation.”
When students have problems that cannot be resolved with academic help, Adams will discuss next steps with Reynolds, who can provide assistance. If students explicitly tell her about mental health issues, she will direct them to meetings with Reynolds.
Adams, who does not have training as a counselor, compared herself to a friend.
“I would not be qualified to do any type of diagnosing, do any type of interventions in the mental health realm,” she said.
A typical student meeting with Reynolds involves identifying possible issues and trying to find strategies to help students solve those issues.
“My philosophy is that the answers lie within the person,” Reynolds said. “So the first time I visit with someone, it might be either reestablishing or establishing the safety of this space.”
If problems are too large for Reynolds to solve immediately, she will discuss external support with students and their parents.
“Consulting on campus is a shorter to medium-term arrangement,” she said. “Off-campus provides a more private setting where a person can schedule regular, ongoing, longer sessions and have that happen away from the hustle and bustle of campus life.”
However, Reynolds will act as a liaison between the student’s therapist and the school if necessary.
“We all need to have a safety net. I can do the beginning work, the middle work, or, if a person’s coming out of therapy and is terminated, I can do the follow-up work,” she said.
Head of School Lee Thomsen compared this to triage.
“We’re the band-aid, right?” he said. “But if there’s something really seriously challenging, then we refer that out.”
For the upcoming school year, Thomsen said the school is considering creating a full-time position for a mental health specialist who will work alongside Reynolds to provide more resources in dealing with stress generated by the pandemic.
“We haven’t created the job description yet,” Thomsen said. The school would search for someone with a clinical license in social work and background in that field and education.
Lack of high school resources and awareness
Previously, the Social-Emotional Learning course was a 30-minute, weekly class for freshmen in their first semester during flex period.
However, Head of High School Brooke Wells decided to stop those meetings this year, as many of the current freshmen had already passed through the Country Day middle school program, where mental health is included in the curriculum.
“Ms. Reynolds and I thought it’d be more effective to have it a little looser,” he said. “Part of wellness is having that flex time to deal with your friends, so we didn’t want to take that away.”
Not all students are aware of the school’s mental health services. A Jan. 6 Octagon poll sent to high school students found that 35% of the 40 respondents said they were not aware of resources like the ARC or having meetings with Reynolds. Fourteen respondents expressed a desire for more resources like occasional peer-to-peer discussions or licensed counselors dedicated to the high school.
Dr. Archana Trivedi, a practicing adult psychiatrist and parent of seniors Arijit and Arikta Trivedi, said mandatory meetings with a health care provider would be better to help get students more comfortable with asking for help.
Trivedi added that mental health has become even more important after the pandemic.
“I know through my adult patients that their kids are struggling,” she said. “Your early teen and late teen years are a very, very important part of your life.”
Once teens miss out on important experiences and social interactions due to isolation measures, their mental health can be severely affected, she said.
Regardless of the nature of support available to students, both Trivedi and Reynolds recommend that students struggling with mental health — or even just with negative feelings — seek help.
“I always say that they should just try it one time,” Trivedi said. A lot of people don’t want to come forward because of stigma, she said, but everything that happens in a medical atmosphere is fully confidential.
She added that speaking to a counselor or mental health professional specifically is important, instead of relying on friends for help.
“If a 15-year-old is asking a 15-year-old the solution to the bigger problems, of course, your 15-year-old friend is going to suggest whatever in his or her best knowledge,” Trivedi said. “But they do not have the idea of what all is available outside that.”
Reynolds said for students looking for a starting point, a good place to begin is with trusted friends or adults.
“Start with someone and tell them what you need them to know,” she said.
Off-campus student experiences
Junior Liz Cook has mainly relied on off-campus support, but has also spoken with the school. Her mental health issues seriously began in middle school, she said.
As she got older, she began to have more issues with her mental health, developing depression on top of preexisting anxiety. She saw a therapist off-campus every week, but the situation only got worse, until she was considered a danger to herself and put into temporary psychiatric care.
She returned home soon after that but has spent more time on-and-off in care for the next two years.
“Every time I got out, I was doing better and then a couple of months after I had gotten out I would just plummet again,” she said. “I came home and I was like, ‘this sucks.’ I remembered what the real world looks like, and I remembered that I have work to do.”
After her most recent stay in a residential facility during August 2021, she entered an intensive outpatient care program for two weeks and subsequently returned to school. Unfortunately, her mental health again took a turn for the worse by late September until she was no longer allowed to stay on campus.
Cook met with the ARC about her mental health issues, who found that the school was not equipped to handle her mental health issues.
“At school, it’s not like I have someone following me 24/7,” she said. “So they were like, ‘You cannot be here right now.’”
Cook left campus and immediately went to a crisis therapy appointment. She went to the emergency room that day, where she had a realization about her twin sister, junior Emily Cook.
“I’ve known her since I was like a literal split cell,” she said. “She’s my life. If she ever had an accident and passed away, I would not survive. And then something clicked.”
“I was crying because I love my sister so much,” she said. “I was like, ‘Emily, you’re not losing me yet.’”
Cook went home that night, her thought process completely changed.
“I don’t know why it switched or when it switched,” she said. “I started to see the good in things and not just the good in the moment.”
Cook returned to school the next day; the school required clearance from her therapist or psychiatrist before she stepped back onto campus. She said she had teachers who were supportive.
“The teachers are amazing,” Cook said. “If you’re struggling, they try to make it as good as they can.”
However, she was critical of the school’s overall resources; she and Zhao would like to see more available for students.
“I think it’d be nice to have a fully licensed therapist,” Cook said.
Cook also said that seeking help is an important step for those struggling with mental health.
“It’s not going to be smooth sailing. It definitely takes effort. It takes time,” she said. “It takes a lot of energy. But it’s so worth it.”
If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, please call 1-800-273-TALK for support.
— By Samhita Kumar and Garman Xu
Originally published in the February 1 issue of The Octagon.