Adrie Young, Lia Dunakin, Leo Braveman, Biran Mahmoud
Whether it’s anxiety, depression, or low self-esteem, SLA students are experiencing an unprecedented increase in mental health issues.
School Counselor Zoe Siswick acknowledged that recently there has been a huge spike in referrals to her office this year, especially among teenage girls.
“Everyone is struggling more with Covid issues,” she said.
This trend is not unique to SLA. According to NPR, in the fall of 2020, pediatricians and hospitals declared a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health.
SLAMedia knew that students were struggling at school. But was school a part of the problem, or a part of the solution? We set out to talk to everyone involved — and what we discovered is that there is a disconnect between how students are doing and how SLA programs and policies seek to help.
In an anonymous survey, SLA students spoke honestly about how their mental health is impacted by school.
When asked how school impacts them, 93% of students that responded shared that social interactions at school positively affect their mental health, and 83% said academic workload negatively impacts their mental health. Less than 7% of the answers included the school’s counseling services as a positive influence on their mental health.
When asked what they thought teachers, advisors, counselors, or administrators should do differently to better support students’ mental health, we didn’t get many responses. Of the few answers we received, many simply asked for teachers to assign less work.
One student responded, “Talk about what kind of resources SLA has regarding mental health so students are aware.” After interviewing more students on the topic, it became clear that students only have limited information about their options when it comes to mental health support at the school.
“I know that there’s counselor Ms. Siswick, and I think her door is most of the time always open to students, but that’s really all I’ve heard of,” said Sophomore Kara Clapper.
Sophomore Marly Leventon also named limited options.
“I haven’t seen many resources, The only thing that I’ve seen are signs around the hallways and in the stairwell. They’re encouraging, but it doesn’t mention anybody specific that people can go to if they’re having mental health issues.”
Sophomore Leila Chacker struggles with depression, anxiety, and ADHD, but doesn’t use any of the resources that SLA provides to students struggling with their mental health.
“They don’t really advertise them the right way…it’s a lot of, like, really having to advocate for yourself. But that’s not good when it gets to a tipping point and everything becomes really hard…you actually have to go and find out certain things, so I don’t think that’s the best way that [SLA] could do it,” Chacker said.
Does support at SLA go beyond a counselor and encouraging signs? Why do students have to work so hard to get the help they need?
We asked Ms. Siswick if she thinks the school does an adequate job of being proactive and supporting students’ mental health issues.
“SLA has two counselors. One is focused on college and one is focused on socioemotional support. We don’t have the physical human power capacity to be able to provide for all our students’ best needs,” she said.
She also spoke about the students she’s seen, whose mental health issues typically revolve around stress and anxiety. “I think a lot of [mental health issues] start outside of school, and the school can add to it,” said Ms. Siswick.
Ms. Siswick talked about her “open-door policy”, where students can go into her office and seek help at any time. “I would love to have a full-time therapist on staff here so that I could have 40 students a week have full-time therapy sessions”, she added.
Ms. Siswick also knows there are many other students with mental health problems who don’t seek her help. She explained how talking to your advisor is always an option, and that teachers are constantly looking for new ways to provide structure and support – for example, providing students with checkpoints for projects.
Ann Leanness, the assistant principal, also spoke to us about some of the resources surrounding mental health available for students at SLA. “We have some counselors, a school psychologist, and a retired school psychologist who comes to school to work with some students.”
We asked Ms. Siswick how kids who need help with mental health get referred to these resources.
“They would bring an insurance card with them or take a photo of it. Then there is a website with a filter, where you put in insurance, issue and you can read a description of a therapist”
In our survey, we also asked students how mindful they think SLA teachers are of their students’ mental health, both when planning their classes and when teaching. Almost half of the respondents – 14 out of 30 – thought teachers were neutral on this, neither ignoring nor catering to students’ needs.
In her interview, Chacker told us that, “A lot of the teachers are very understanding, but some of them are not. A few teachers that I’ve had would change the weight on my quarter grades so that it would more reflect what I was working on, but other ones didn’t really help.”
9th and 10th-grade History teacher Daniel Symonds talked about how he rarely considers mental health when lesson planning, but feels that it is important, for his class especially, to include trigger warnings for specific content being taught.
He also mentioned the concept of ‘the ethic of care’, which are teaching values that new employees at SLA are taught and encouraged to follow.
“I think the ethic of care is inclusive of mental health,” Mr. Symonds said. His goal is “to create an environment where people are comfortable,” such as not provoking students’ anxieties and having space for different personalities in the classroom.
Mr. Symonds talked about how he has noticed a decline in social interactions and focus in his classroom after students attended virtual school for a year and a half. He stated that this time has made it more obvious to him that kids are not good at having times where they are not stimulated.
“The pandemic has ushered in a much wider and deeper issue in students disengaging in school and finding outlets for their frustration through sleeping, eating, smoking, other drugs, and devious licks,” he said.
He explained that he believes that development happens through social interactions. That’s why he is very adamant about talking to kids about less screen time. It is a habit that he thinks everyone should become aware of.
Virtual school took a toll on many students’ overall mental health, but students at SLA have communicated that social interactions during in-person school have left positive marks. Chacker herself noted that as a strength of the school.
“I think the community here is really great,” she stated. “A lot of the people are very supportive.”
However, the gap between resources and students making use of them remains.
Many students aren’t aware of the options at their disposal, and if they are, the resources don’t feel easily accessible.
Even with life getting as back to normal with Covid as it can get, students are still struggling, whether it’s about academic workload or reasons outside of school.
“SLA should have more widely open and accessible resources for kids struggling with school or personal reasons that feel safe and comfortable,” Chacker said.