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Chicago Catholic: Catholic high schools focusing on students’ mental health

By May 4, 2023May 15th, 2023No Comments

Catholic high schools focusing on students’ mental health

By Michelle Martin | Staff Writer (Source)
Thursday, May 4, 2023

A wall in St. Laurence High School where each student wrote why they matter. (Photo provided)

Reports of anxiety, depression and other mental health issues among teenagers are rising across the United States, and Catholic schools are responding with a variety of strategies, including having therapy dogs visit schools, increasing counseling resources and letting students themselves take the lead in the mental health discussion.

That’s one of the strategies that St. Laurence High School in Burbank has employed, making mental health the focus of its Leadership Week in March.

Laura Storino, St. Laurence’s director of leadership and mission integration, said the wellness summit was one of several efforts at the school, which has a psychotherapist on staff along with school counselors and is working with Same Here, an international non-profit that is trying to normalize conversation about mental health.

“This wellness summit is one of our first steps in that direction,” Storino said, “We’re working toward being proactive in how we take care of ourselves instead of reactive.”

The Leadership Week wellness summit was organized by students who attended an October retreat with peers in other Christian Brothers schools, said Mia Garcia, a junior.

“As someone who has struggled with mental health, I knew there were so many other students who were struggling who were afraid to talk about it,” Garcia said.

Garcia and her fellow Leadership Week coordinators shared their own stories with fellow students during the week.

“We all go through different situations,” said junior Kasi Bonilla. “And when those situations aren’t really talked about or brought to light, they start boiling under the surface.”

“Mental health sort of has a stigma,” added junior Sahir Muhammad. “We wanted to express that it’s OK to talk about it. It was a way to bring everyone together.”

Muhammed said the stigma might be fading, but it isn’t gone.

“We’re still working on that,” he said.

Nazareth Academy in LaGrange has a student Mental Health Task Force that plans activities and projects to support mental health among students.

Senior Miles Hayford, a member of the task force, said some of the group’s projects have included bringing therapy dogs to the school, especially before exams, and publicizing national suicide prevention month.

Having the therapy dogs visit has been his favorite project, he said.

“A lot of students say the dogs really help reduce stress,” he said.

Hayford, who also plays on the school tennis team and writes for the school newspaper and literary magazine, said his own experiences made him want to help others.

“I’ve had my fair share of troubles with mental health, so I thought it was important to help my fellow students,” Hayford said. “There’s a lot more social pressure now, and a far more intense need to fit in. I think people really get stressed out by that.”

Nazareth Academy principal Therese Hawkins said it’s hard to tell how much more of the concern about  teens’ mental health is based on more young people suffering from disorders such as anxiety and depression and how much is based on increased discussion about it. It seems clear, though, that especially since the COVID-19 pandemic started in 2020, more young people are struggling.

Current statistics are hard to come by, but in 2012, the National Institutes of Mental Health reported that one in three adolescents would experience an anxiety disorder. In 2020, the National Institutes of Mental Health reported that one in six adolescents would experience a major depressive episode. Meanwhile, in 2019, suicide was reported as the second leading cause of death among people aged 10-14 and 15-24 in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Those statistics don’t include the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, which school leaders say has led to more students having mental health challenges.

Dan VanDyke, director of student services at De La Salle Institute, said he and colleagues at La Sallian schools were seeing an uptick in anxiety and depression among their students in 2018 and 2019. Then there was a big jump when the pandemic shut schools in the spring of 2020.

There were more students reporting everything from anxiety and depression to thoughts about harming themselves, he said.

“For a lot of our kids, the pandemic was really isolating,” he said, because De La Salle draws students from all over the Chicago area. Many come from neighborhoods that were hit hard by the pandemic.

Now that they have returned to school, and school has returned to closer to normal, students are benefiting from daily interaction with peers and teachers, coaches and other adults, VanDyke said.

It’s those teachers and coaches who will most often suggest that a student should talk to a counselor if they see that something seems wrong, or suggest that a counselor reach out to a student.

Student mental health needs now take a lot of counselors’ time, VanDyke said, and De La Salle is now looking to hire a college counselor, to take some of those responsibilities off the guidance counselors’ plates.

Nazareth’s Hawkins agreed that the pandemic has been a factor, but it’s not the only one.

“Definitely, the pandemic had a huge effect on youth mental health,” Hawkins said. “There’s also the influence of social media and the connectedness that some young adults and teenagers are experiencing is unhealthy. There are other external pressures, whether you are a high-performing athlete or musician or student — there’s this pressure to be perfect. It’s a combination of things we have to look at.”

Brendan Green, Nazareth Academy’s guidance director, said that teenagers now connect in ways that circumvent family involvement.

“When I was in high school, if you wanted to get a hold of me, you had to call my house, talk to my parents, hope I was home, and get off the phone in a reasonable time,” he said.

Now, constant connectivity can make teens feel like they have to be there for their friends 24 hours a day, or that they have to have the perfect life to compare with the pictures friends post on social media. In an uglier turn, some students have received upwards of 100 mean messages in a few hours from bullies, Green and Hawkins said.

“Bullies have existed since the beginning of time,” Hawkins said. “But when I was having a hard time at school, I could go home and have a total break from it until I had to go back the next day.”

At the same time, students have become more open about their mental health and the challenges they face.

“When I started here as a counselor, I had students who wouldn’t tell me — their counselor — that they saw a therapist,” said Green, who has been at Nazareth for 15 years. “Now they’ll me, ‘My therapist told me to do this, and it’s helping.’”

In addition to the student Mental Health Task Force, Nazareth has instituted “Mid-Day Mindfulness,” a series of four presentations about mental health topics for students, presented by professionals from Back to Balance in Hinsdale, and a series of lectures for parents about adolescent mental health.

It’s also adjusted its schedule so that students have three or four classes a day, and three or four classes to do homework for each night, with classes alternating days. In addition, the school started playing “pump up” music in the halls in the morning; and started “Wellness Wednesdays,” designated Wednesdays over the summer when students can visit their guidance counselors.

Green said that when he talks to students, he tries to make sure they understand the difference between occasionally feeling anxious — a universal experience that is healthy — and anxiety disorder.

“There are times you should feel anxious,” he said. “It can motivate you. If the fire alarm goes off right now, I should be anxious about doing what I need to do to evacuate the building. But I shouldn’t be so anxious about the fire alarm all the time that I can’t do anything.”

Those mental health needs are not going away, school leaders agreed.

“I’ve been in schools my entire adult life,” Hawkins said. “This topic of mental health, it’s just something we do now. We talk about ways we can meet the needs of our students. What can we do to help them learn strategies for what to do at times when their mental health is more challenging?”

Nazareth Academy Principal Therese Hawkins name was corrected in this article on May 8, 2023.

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