A Focus on Mental Health and Wellness
Today’s teenagers are stressed out. This is not breaking news. The reasons are numerous and varied. Pressures are internal and external. Today, at Milton, faculty members, the staff, and most important, students, recognize mental health and wellness as key components to a student’s overall well-being.
When new students arrive on campus, many come from environments where they stood out as a scholar, an athlete, an artist, or a musician. Amanda Chapin, one of Milton’s health counselors, says that as these students find themselves with many other smart and talented students, they sometimes struggle to figure out where they fit in. But, she says, “there’s room here for everybody to be talented, smart, and successful.” Milton’s Health and Counseling Center is there to help any student who might be having a hard time with the adjustment or to help older students who are facing stressors—both big and small. And overall the center wants to empower students to make good decisions and help them shape a safe, healthy high school experience.
Mental Health Counseling
When Director of Counseling Lisa Morin came to Milton nine years ago, she knew she needed to expand the Upper School counseling team. Today, four full-time counselors live on campus and provide 24/7 on-call coverage during the school year. The counselors also wear many other hats as student advisors, coaches, and teachers.
“We work as a team to destigmatize the idea of what counseling is,” Lisa says. “At the beginning of each school year, we attend dorm meetings and morning assemblies to introduce ourselves and explain what we do. We talk about mental health and wellness, and the importance of getting counseling if you need it. We have the students put our numbers into their phones. Even if a student might never need to call for themselves, they might need to call for a friend.”
The destigmatization is working. During Lisa’s first year, the counseling office received 25 after-hours calls from students. Now, the counselors receive up to 130 after-hours calls a year. Rather than being a sign that kids have more problems, it shows that they are more willing to reach out for help, she says. “The students started to see us as more of a resource, which is fabulous.”
John Lee started as a counselor at Milton two years ago. It’s his first independent school experience, and he says that what is unique about Milton is that all students have free access to one-on-one counseling sessions. Some of them have seen counselors before coming to Milton, he says, “but it’s also not uncommon for a student to say, ‘I don’t know what this counseling is all about, but people keep talking about it.’”
“Sometimes students just need a space to vent, talk, and feel heard, affirmed, and validated in their experiences and feelings,” John says. “Other times, a student may need to develop specific skills to better cope with time management or become more aware of their weaknesses and strengths. Sometimes it’s just getting them to reflect by asking them questions, such as ‘Are you sure you want to play that sport and do all these things, because remember last year, that was really hard?’”
Counselors also work closely with faculty members, especially those who live in the dorms, to empower them to handle certain situations. If, for example, a student feels overwhelmed, a faculty member is shown what to do until a counselor becomes available. Counselors also work with the faculty when a student may need to miss classes.
“Sometimes, kids need to take a break,” Lisa says. “Just like if they have a 103-degree fever, they should focus on getting better before returning to class. Well, the mind is as important as the body, so sometimes they should focus on feeling better mentally before returning to class.”
The most important recent change in mental health services at Milton has been an increase in student involvement. During the 2017–2018 school year, head monitors Kailee Silver ’18 and Greg Livingston ’18 and the student Self-Governing Association (SGA) made mental health and wellness their main focus as student leaders. One of the initiatives the SGA proposed was to institute a series of academic days with delayed start times to address the issue of sleep. Milton approved the proposal, and during the 2018–2019 school year, the school rolled out three delayed start times of 10 a.m., with class schedules adjusted accordingly. Student feedback on those mornings was overwhelmingly positive. Some students were just happy for extra sleep; others talked about feeling less pressure the night before to finish homework by a certain time.
Two peer counseling models—Independent Student Support (ISS) and Peer Leaders—have existed at Milton for many years. John is the faculty advisor for ISS, a group of 20 seniors who meet weekly and are assigned either to dorms or as day student support. They are introduced to students at the beginning of the year as a resource students can reach out to at any time. They also attend freshman health classes to foster relationships between underclassmen and upperclassmen. ISS hosted a Mental Health Awareness Week in the spring, with activities and programming around campus.
ISS member Eva O’Marah ’19 says, “It’s really helpful to have a senior who’s been through it all to be there to support other students.” In their weekly meetings with John, ISS members learn what their role is, and how to handle certain situations, and sometimes they role-play scenarios so that they are prepared when a student reaches out.
“Sometimes, an ISS member notices something about a student and then suggests that they get in touch with the health center,” Eva says. “Other times, students go to an ISS member to ask about what they should do. Sometimes, we are just supportive. It can feel uncomfortable to walk down to the health center and ask to meet with a counselor, so we walk down with them just to be there.”
Amanda is the faculty advisor for Peer Leaders. Every year, about 25 to 30 rising juniors apply for 10 to 12 spots. Peer leaders focus solely on freshman students, meeting in small groups weekly to introduce them to the School and answer questions that freshmen might feel more comfortable asking another student. Peer leaders tell them how to get help for themselves or a friend, how to access the health center, and how to handle stress around exams and projects. They also inform students about the sanctuary policy. Although using illegal substances is, of course, against school rules, Milton prioritizes student health and safety, so students can call for help for themselves or a friend without worrying that they will incur a disciplinary response for breaking a major school rule. Unrelated to sanctuary, students can also reach out to one another even if they are not members of ISS or Peer Leaders. They can call a health counselor if they are concerned about a student, and the counselor will follow up with the student. “The students really care for one another and look out for one another,” John says.
“In the past few years,” Amanda says, “there’s been a real shift in the focus on health, wellness, and mindfulness. I’m really glad to be part of an institution that is thinking about these important things. And it’s also wonderful to see the ways in which the students are driving this shift as well.”