*Gender neutral they/them pronouns are used throughout.
On May 10, 2018, our upper school community had the opportunity to listen to a panel of two mental health professionals, Ms. Lisa Athan, a grief specialist and the executive director and founder of Grief Speaks, and Dr. Susanne Struebing, a psychologist at the Peck School. They answered previously selected questions about mental health, wellness, and dealing with trauma, and they also answered questions from the student audience. This informative, well-needed assembly felt like the first of its kind for many in the community; hopefully, it was not the last.
What is mental health?
According to Ms. Athan, mental health lies on a spectrum. One can gauge where they lie on that spectrum by asking three questions: how productive am I in my life? Am I able to seek and maintain healthy relationships? How well am I able to handle adversity? Dr. Struebing emphasized that one’s identity is not defined by his or her mental health. She reminded us, “it’s not your full identity any more than a broken bone.”
Ms. Athan and Dr. Struebing discussed the stigma around mental health and how we can break it down. The critical piece to that is to refrain from judging people. “We often judge things we don’t understand,” Ms. Athan explained. “When it comes to stigma, knowledge is power.” For example, healthy coping strategies are not often taught, in schools or elsewhere. There’s a common phrase, “everything I need to know I learned in kindergarten,” and that applies for many skills–manners, the alphabet, and more–but generally not coping skills. In fact, for many of us, this assembly was the first time these topics were directly addressed in school. Perhaps schools should spend more time talking about mental health, especially since breaking the stigma begins with education.
How can I identify the difference between stress and a mental health issue?
After shifting attention to this question, Dr. Struebing asked us to raise our hands if we feel that our community is a stressful place. As the audience giggled, most of our hands were raised. She then asked how many of us value achievement, and we had the same reaction. Focusing back on the question, Dr. Struebing explained that “being stressed is an unfortunate consequence of external pressures.” We live in a stressful world! We can internalize this external pressure, but stress does not come from within. Anxiety comes from within. “Anxiety is your brain telling you, ‘oh my God, I’m gonna die,’” described Dr. Struebing. Anxiety is a physical, social, or emotional internal pressure that gets in the way of productivity.
How can I help a friend who is struggling?
“The greatest gift you can ever give a peer is the gift of listening… listening fully,” Dr. Struebing shared. When a friend shares how they’re feeling with you, listen actively. Turn off your phone, sit down, and listen. Give your friend your undivided attention. When you speak, always use “I” statements. (e.g. I’ve noticed that you haven’t been yourself lately; is there any way I can help?) Avoid bombarding them with an abundance of “yes” or “no” questions. They might talk much more or less than you expected, and that is fine. The important part is that you listen.
Thinking ahead, a senior asked, what are the next steps after listening to a friend who is struggling? Dr. Struebing suggested coming back every week or two and checking in. However, you should avoid being “nudgy,” and give your friend the power to talk or to not talk. When it is necessary, you can also find a trusted adult to help. Sometimes your friend might not want to bring in a trusted adult, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you don’t. This was well phrased when Ms. Athan quoted a freshman at another high school who said, “I’m risking the friendship for the friend.”
What if I’m struggling?
It’s important to pay attention to yourself. Depression, anxiety, and other mental health challenges manifest themselves in many different ways. Consider the three questions Ms. Athan posed at the beginning of the assembly: how productive am I in my life? Am I able to seek and maintain healthy relationships? How well am I able to handle adversity? That being said, do not be too concerned with a diagnosis. Diagnoses are research-based and used for specific purposes, and you should look at yourself as a whole person.
Once you do, don’t be afraid to ask for help. It takes courage, but reaching out is just talking. Ms. Athan remarked that the longer we go without asking for help, the worse it becomes. If you feel you need it, go ahead and reach out to a trusted adult. If you don’t have a trusted adult, you can use a friend’s trusted adult. You may also have a trusted adult who you just don’t realize is one. There are also many excellent hotlines one can call, though Dr. Struebing recommends a face-to-face conversation. Try going to parents, someone else’s parents, or maybe even community healthcare centers. Whoever your trusted adult is, they should honor your confidentiality unless you share information about hurting yourself, hurting others, or child abuse. How do you know if a trusted adult is a trusted adult? Trust your gut.
What else can you do for yourself? First, create safe environments. Ms. Athan noted that social media is extremely detrimental to depression, anxiety, and stress, so limit your use of it. If you’re in a difficult situation at school because of your mental health, speak up for yourself. Teachers can be more understanding than you think. Additionally, honor your own limitations. How much is enough for you?
What are some healthy coping strategies?
Dr. Struebing suggests doing whatever feeds your soul. Spend time with friends. Be silly. Enjoy nature. Try meditation. For meditation, Ms. Athan recommends the apps Headspace, Calm, and Insight Timer. She also likes the “four-three-two-one” game. (Identify four things you hear, three things you see, two things you smell, and one thing you feel.) You can also try a walking meditation. However, meditation does not work for everyone. The key aspect of meditation that can be found in many other activities is mindfulness. Mindfulness is being aware of the present moment. Dr. Struebing says, “when you tend to the present moment, the rest of the moments fall in line.” However, with our full schedules, as a sophomore astutely pointed out, where do we fit in time for coping strategies and mindfulness? This question was followed by an overwhelming amount of finger-snaps for agreement, mine included.
“Do you have thirty seconds?” Dr. Struebing asked. “Can you take thirty seconds, and sit, and be with yourself?”
Consider mindful transitions. Be mindful as you walk between classes. Practice mindfulness in the moments between getting in the car and beginning to drive. That being said, fill your schedule selectively; do what you love. Recognize that you can’t do it all, and let your parents know how overwhelmed you are. Ms. Athan suggests looking at your life as a pie. There’s only so much time; make sure you divide it up meaningfully.
We’ve all collectively shared a trauma this year. The question is how we move forward as a community. Regarding responses, Dr. Struebing reminded us that any response to trauma is okay except for judging others. Loss leads to judgement, which perpetuates trauma. The other factor is acknowledging your feelings and talking to someone if you need to. Dr. Struebing said, “anytime you experience trauma, when you don’t talk about it, you get stuck.” Grief is a process, and if, during that process, you can’t function, it might be a good idea to see a doctor.
But now, six months later, what can we do? One question that elicited a sea of snaps asked how we can memorialize a loss. Ms. Athan said that we shouldn’t set it up in a way that we’re constantly reminded of a tragedy. Instead, in our community, we should do something student-led and helpful, like creating a yearbook page with a donation to a suicide prevention non-profit organization or organizing a community walk.
What seemed like the most popular question in our minds regarded whether or not the trauma was handled in the best way possible, particularly in the terms of waiting six months after the trauma to discuss mental health. A senior touched on this when she pointed out that many seniors felt pressure to be strong and comfort younger students, while also needing to take care of themselves, that many students felt rushed going back to class as soon as we did, and that she felt that we needed an assembly like this six months ago. Once again, students snapped in agreement. Dr. Struebing responded by highlighting that “there will always be mistakes in the process of how [people handle grief].” Perhaps some of us did need more support six months ago, but perfection is unattainable, especially when everyone has different needs. Maybe the goal is to work towards a community where we can find different levels of support. The other point Dr. Struebing made was that “it is never selfish to love yourself and take care of yourself,” and “when you love yourself, you have more of yourself to give to other people.” My takeaway from that is that, going forward, when I’m in a situation where I feel pressure to be strong and take care of others, I’ll do that, but I’ll take care of myself first.
The strength of our community was clear through this assembly. In fact, Dr. Struebing asked me to share with you her deep appreciation for our openness during the conversation. Students were able to ask honest questions and open themselves up in front of the entire school. For that, for being a part of the Kent Place sisterhood, I consider myself fortunate. The unfortunate aspect of the assembly was its abrupt ending time. As students were whisked back to class, many questions were left unanswered. When will we have a chance to ask more questions? How can we ensure a mental health conversation continues? Dr. Struebing and Ms. Athan suggested that we, the students, just keep talking about it. Of course, we should do that, but I would argue that we should not just talk; we should take action.
You can think about what that means for you. One way I’m taking action is by writing articles for Breaking the Stigma. This isn’t the kind of thing that has a quick solution, like a band-aid or a mental health assembly. This is a process. It takes time and deliberate steps. I have no way of knowing whether or not the adults in our community are going to take those steps, but I know that students should.
If you would like to submit ideas, writing, art/photos/videos, or links/resources to Breaking the Stigma, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
We are all students of the issues presented here. If you would like to recommend a correction or change, please email email@example.com. Also, we are not doctors, lawyers, or professionals. Please use your resources to seek help; the front pages of the Student Handbook have lists of who to go to for whatever your need.