Teen Changemakers Essay Contest: 1st Place

By: Petra Dujmic

As a small, Catholic institution in Arlington, Massachusetts, I’ve always regarded my high school to be a place of mental health awareness and respect. From my first days at AC to my upcoming last as a current senior, mental health importance has, in more subtle ways than prominent, been emphasized via our grade-wide “retreats”, counseling services, and school masses, among others. Nevertheless, with the alarming increase of suicide rates among high school students (a 56% increase since 2007, to be exact!), maximizing mental health awareness has perhaps never been more urgent! Despite my belief that my school was meeting—if not exceeding—the mental health needs of its students and faculty, I decided to sit down with my guidance counselor and find out, once and for all, the specific services available to those grappling with mental health concerns. Throughout our discussion, I discovered resources that both surprised and motivated me to contribute to mental wellness in our little corner of Massachusetts! For as my guidance counselor put it, we can never have too many voices advocating for an issue that is so often silenced, so often swept under the rug for fear of humiliation or, worse yet, attributed to unsavory character flaws. So, how are students with mental health concerns treated within the blue-gold walls of Arlington Catholic? Here’s what I found!

When contemplating the mental health services offered at my high school, my mind immediately jumps to the counseling services offered to students who feel overwhelmed with their course load. As high school students, our schedules are often jam-packed with extracurricular activities, competitions, and standardized tests, not to mention everyday homework! In fact, gazing upon our glum faces one morning, my psychology teacher appropriately noted that she felt high school was one of the most demanding periods of her life. Her partial solution to the chronic societal pressure? Responsible time management during our WIN block! As a way to decrease students’ sleep deprivation due to many academic obligations, administration scheduled a “What I Need” block, a forty minute period during the school day when students can complete their homework, attend club meetings, and study for tests/quizzes. One concern that my guidance counselor expressed is her difficulty in addressing every student’s needs with the rapidity she would like. Implementing the WIN period (also called “Flex Time” as some schools), therefore, ensures that those students who may be having mental health concerns can meet with their counselor ASAP to receive medical/academic assistance.

Once students schedule an appointment with a counselor, they may be referred to the staff’s licensed social worker, Ms. Kiernan. In addition to counseling with our social worker, administration often contacts outside therapists to develop collaborative plans for treatment (additional therapy is particularly helpful given that the two most common mental concerns guidance handles are depression and anxiety). The guidance department also works with outside agencies, if necessary, to refer students to day programs, hospitalization programs, or assisted learning initiatives. The Wayside agency, which evaluates the student and suggests programs such as the, is a common collaborator with Ms. Kiernan and the guidance department. But how often does this whole process of counseling and outside agency referral occur? Are serious mental health issues common in my school community? Unfortunately, my guidance counselor, Ms. Delude, notes that in her 17 years of employment at AC, the number of students struggling with mental health issues has doubled, if not tripled, over the course of ten years. To get a better feel for how such statistics have impacted the services of guidance, I asked my Ms. Delude to describe how the content of her work has changed over the past decade. As expected given the increase in suicide rates, she replied that her work is now divided 50/50; that is, while half of her work still pertains to helping students navigate their way to college, the other half is committed to helping students through personal issues. Creating schedules for make-up work, comforting stressed seniors, and assisting students through their mental health concerns are now a much more prominent part of my guidance counselor’s schedule in comparison to her work a decade ago.

Nevertheless, for all their dedication to assisting individual students through stressors, the guidance department has also attempted to make the application process less straining for the entire junior and senior classes! Ms. Delude describes that a few years back, the guidance department used to deliver one presentation on the college application process. In order to prevent anxiety among the upperclassmen, the guidance department has now split the presentation into four speeches—one in December and the other in spring of both junior and senior year. Taking advantage of the new WIN period, guidance is also providing college essay help and review twice every cycle of seven school days, and has asked the English department to spend several weeks at the end of the year instructing juniors on how to structure their college essays. Ultimately, my guidance counselor explains that these schedule changes were meant to address the confusion surrounding the application process, and thereby ease the stress/anxiety associated with senior year!

But I can’t give guidance full credit—the general office of administration at AC has also worked to promote more community-wide mental health awareness! Specifically, administration has recently made health and wellness classes, which discuss mental as well as physical wellbeing, mandatory for sophomores. Although once a quarter freshman and sophomores are required to attend a health presentation in replace of their gym class, these presentations have been centered on solely physical health in the past (e.g., vaping, alcohol addiction, and melanoma prevention). In attempt to incorporate mental health, sophomores now attend a class-wide discussion once every seven school days. Ms. Delude also mentioned that administration is attempting to recruit a mental health professional to address the class during World Suicide Prevention month, in hopes of informing students of the counseling resources at their fingertips as well as educating them about the differences between regular stress and symptoms of mental illness. I myself have had the privilege of hearing a mental health professional visit our school and discuss her research into medications for schizophrenia and her own family’s struggle with depression. As a chemist with over 40 patents working to develop more effective medications for cognitive disorders (e.g., slowly metabolizing antipsychotics as opposed to oral medications), hearing her story was personally inspiring to me! As immigrants from Lebanon, her family had suffered hardships that might have predisposed her relatives to mental illness, and yet the openness and honesty with which she told their stories was thought-provoking and sincere. Shortly after, a behavioral analyst (and AC alumnus) visited our school and talked to us about his work assisting children with autism and other communication difficulties in their academic progress. Despite the fact that he visited our school two years ago, I still remember him for his infectious passion and the way that he teared up describing the restraining of a mentally ill child in the hospital. All in all, these speakers have cultivated my interest in neuroscience and empowered my belief that creating an open discussion about mental health is not only socially acceptable, but socially necessary. It is my hope that I can refer neuroscientists/mental health professionals in the Boston area to administration so that we not only have a guest speaker during Brain Awareness Week, but also for other international awareness days like World Mental Health Day on October 10 th or World Suicide Prevention Day on September 13th (more on this later)!

I mentioned earlier that my school is traditionally Catholic (although students of many other religions—including international students from China, Vietnam, and other countries in Southeast Asia, attend Arlington Catholic)! As a result of religious affiliation, our school community aims to guide students in their spiritual development. Hence, ever since my freshman year, our school has been organizing events that promote relaxation, meditation, or self-reflection that also seek to stimulate personal mental health awareness. One of the most popular of these events are the grade-wide “retreats,” in which faculty and students embark on a day of ice-breakers and honest discussions about their mental health status. Although all are contemplative, my favorite retreat occurred during my junior year, in which the theme was women’s body image and struggles with suicide. After the ice-breakers, my theology teacher launched into a heartfelt discussion about her struggles with self-confidence, soon followed by a fellow peer’s discussion about her attempted suicide and rough family upbringing that spiraled into mental health issues. Not long after both had finished their speeches, almost every girl in the junior class expressed her own battle against depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder, while others hugged each other and nodded solemnly. Fortunately, faculty advisors ended on a positive note by ensuring that we as students should not hesitate to reach out to teachers regarding our mental health concerns, regardless of whether they be academics-based or more personal pressures.

Following the junior retreat, the faculty has strived to recreate an accepting atmosphere by hosting Arts and Spirituality events where students listen to prayers and attend cultural events like Lunar New Year, in which international students educate others about their culture. While Lunar New Year is certainly a nod toward diversity and tolerance, it may also relieve some of the mental pressure associated with living in a foreign country by making international students feel more socially accepted. International students also have the option to get to know local students by joining the Arlington Youth and Safety Coalition, a town-based club that, according to my guidance counselor, has had the lengthiest involvement with mental health awareness. As Ms. Kiernan explained to me, several years ago the student group launched “Guiding Good Choices,” a parenting program intended to facilitate more effective emotional communication between parents and their children ages 9-14. The event, popularly known as GGC, consists of five workshops spaced amongst five consecutive weeks in which parents and children receive tips for expressing constructive anger, preventing substance abuse, and fostering trust-based relationships by minimizing violence. To cater to the high school age group, the Arlington Youth and Safety Coalition advertises the Parent Support Group program for parents of young adults struggling with substance abuse. Two licensed clinicians facilitate group discussion, and while the goal of the program is focused on beating drug addiction, the support group also aims to encourage teens to express their mental health concerns openly to their oftentimes most prominent caregivers: their parents. Notably, the Arlington Youth Resource Guide, a pamphlet describing the “social, emotional, and mental health resources in Town,” is also available to students attending AC, and was created by an Arlington High School alumnus a short three years ago! The booklet is divided into eight sections discussing the social services, counseling, summer programs, youth groups, etc. in Arlington, and is, as Ms. Kiernan describes, one of the many community service projects most directly focused on mental health awareness.

Speaking of community service, AC’s Campus Ministry department has also worked to give back by supporting mental health advocacy nonprofits and, similarly to the guidance department, offering comfort to those struggling with mental pressures. Specifically, Campus Ministry has connected student volunteers with a nursing home known as the Youville Place in Lexington. Student volunteers are often scheduled to assist in the nursing home’s memory support community, or OMA program, which seeks to encourage intergenerational relationships as well as to promote a more detailed understanding of dementia symptoms and struggles. In addition to lending a hand (or several) to these organizations, Campus Ministry has also sought to facilitate stress relief by hosting self-reflective events in the school chapel. During the Lent liturgical season, for example, Campus Ministry prays a rosary. Following the ten minute rosary comes a half an hour period of self-reflection and, if requested, private discussions with our wonderful Campus Ministry leader, Sister Barbara McHugh. If openness about mental health requires fostering trustworthy relationships between faculty and students, Campus Ministry is certainly working towards stopping the stigma!

Now, while I certainly appreciate the mental health counseling and events at AC, I also can’t ignore the elephant in the room: my school simply does not offer enough community-based avenues to nurture a student body with more sensitivity towards mental illnesses and a greater base of knowledge to undermine stigmatization. Speaking with my guidance counselor and social worker, it became crystal clear that the guidance department treats individual mental health concerns with a great deal of seriousness and respect. From individual therapy to outside agency referrals to guidance counselor collaboration, AC does not seem to undermine student expressions of depression, anxiety, or (thankfully) suicide by dismissing such reports as signs of stress and perfectionism. My high school’s progress in acknowledging mental health awareness on a more global level is, however, simply less impressive. As my guidance counselor, Ms. Delude, explains, “After reading through your questions, I feel as though we might not be doing enough to promote mental health destigmatization. With the alarming rise of depression/anxiety reports within our school community, and on the international levels for that matter, we should be doing more to cultivate a welcoming atmosphere.”

Intrigued by her candidness, I asked Ms. Delude whether AC has ever recognized international events such as Brain Awareness Week or World Mental Health Day. She responded with a solemn shake of the head. Acknowledging the issue with vaping and drug addiction, she explained that mental health awareness is often an issue thrown under the bus because of the greater percentage of students who have been implicated in vaping or alcohol/illegal drug usage. Mrs. Kiernan, leader of the Arlington Youth and Safety Coalition, affirmed that the student group has in the past focused more intently on issues of drug addiction given the epidemic of e-cigarette usage in high schools nationwide. Although I salute their efforts, mental health awareness must not be compromised for distribution of warnings against vaping and drug addiction. In fact, mental health awareness and drug addiction prevention are actually quite complimentary! With an increase in destigmatization efforts comes a likely decrease in drug usage, as students may feel more comfortable expressing their mental turmoil to counselors and receiving emotional support in a healthy, as opposed to artificial, manner. After all, in order to discourage students from hazardous practices, we must provide them an alternative coping strategy. Therefore, my first goal would be to join the Arlington Youth and Safety Coalition, and propose to arrange a presentation discussing both vaping and the most common cause of vaping: mental health concerns (namely, major depressive disorder). Within this presentation to Arlington public school students, I would like to emphasize that an inclination to vape does not, of course, indicate an underlying mental illness. Especially in the case of adolescents, peer pressure and regular stress (such as anxiety for a final exam) are common and natural stimulators to experiment with vaping, drugs, or alcohol. Therefore, an integral aspect of the presentation would include explaining key differences between symptoms of mental illness and common emotional instability. Such education could minimize chances of “overdiagnosing” students, a concern my guidance counselor expressed.

“Whether depression reports have increased due to students’ sense of a more accepting school community or the faculty’s sharpened vigilance towards irritability, remains uncertain to me. Social media has often been implicated in the puzzle, and there is certainly a grain of truth in that. Altogether, students seem less self-sufficient nowadays, and I believe that has to do with a more demanding perfectionistic ideal in our society,” she said. As a high school student, her comment about the “perfectionistic ideal” has certainly struck a chord in me, as I’m sure it has in other students. We might therefore wrap up our presentation by encouraging students to visit their guidance office regardless of whether they attribute their stress to a serious mental health concern or not. “If you’re stressed and need to vent, counselors always have their doors open!” as Ms. Delude would say.

Nevertheless, I would add, students should also have their doors open if their fellow peers require some emotional support! As I mentioned previously, my high school has never recognized international mental health awareness events, such as Brain Awareness Week. Well, it’s about it’s about time that’s changed, don’t you think? I hope to involve the student body by engaging all science classes in a one to two day intro to neuroscience and psychology during Brain Awareness Week! Teachers could use approved curricula from the Brain Facts book available for free online on the Society for Neuroscience’s website to guide their lesson plan. The AP Biology chapter on the nervous system could also serve as a valuable resource. In short, teachers could use the WIN block on the first day to describe the nervous system’s structure, communication, and overview neuropsychiatric diseases. The following day’s WIN block could be used for paper labs and activities suggested by the Dana Foundation. If approved by administration, these classes could also pass out bulletins with a list of mental health services available to students at AC, along with important stats on the rise of mental illness in the past decade.

My final step in my quest to promote AC’s mental health services would be to take up my favorite pen and join the school’s newspaper, the Cougar Growl! As a guest reporter, I could regularly advertise not only my school’s mental health services ( such as the Arlington Youth and Safety Coalition’s activities), but also summarize mental health events in the Boston area. For example, I could write special editions advertising the Central Massachusetts Regional Brain Bee, a neuroscience competition for high school students, or interview nonprofit management teams about the counseling services they provide for teens. I could also introduce students to the Boston Area Neuroscience Group, a branch of the SfN that maintains an online portal where high school students can connect with neuroscience researchers and volunteer opportunities within mental health advocacy nonprofits (e.g., the Alzheimer’s Association). Somehow, someway, my hand has always itched to write about something truly meaningful. This reporter position will, I dare say, satisfy my vocation.

All things considered, Arlington Catholic High School, my soon-to-be alma mater, has pleasantly surprised me with its attention to counseling, college stress relief, and guest speaker visitations. Moving forward, I’d like to advertise the schedule changes/events administration has already organized with consideration for students’ mental health, while promoting community-based initiatives to make for a more well-rounded approach to spearheading the stigma. Although my informative discussion with my guidance counselor may have ended, my dedication has only begun.

In the words of our class prayer, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; Courage to change the things I can; and the Wisdom to know the difference.”

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