Stressed? New Programs Hope to Help

It’s no secret that Thacher is one of the most demanding schools in the country, so it should come as no surprise that Thacher students can experience mental and emotional distress when feeling anxious or overwhelmed. When left unaddressed, these feelings of stress and anxiety can lead to negative results for students’ overall well-being. Mental health issues are prevalent in any community but should be treated with special attention in environments as rigorous as Thacher. Mental health should be a priority at Thacher, and recent efforts by administration hope to better the treatment of mental health.

At the onset of the 2016-2017 school year, the Thacher administration resolved to help students work toward emotional well-being through a variety of newly offered programs. From the stress-relieving yoga and meditation options to the increased availability of counseling opportunities, Thacher has made a conscious effort to assist students who are feeling stressed or overwhelmed. Although this effort is admirable, in a recent survey of 149 Thacher students, 64.2% of students said that they were “not likely” to utilize these new resources. However, this is not to say that Thacher students are apathetic to the effects of mental health. Mental health is of the utmost importance to Thacher students, with 67.6% of 149 recently surveyed students categorizing mental health as either “very important” or “extremely important.”

A common thread among students surveyed was that Thacher is attempting to fix the symptoms of mental health issues, rather than the root cause. One student commented that “I greatly appreciate the new resources the school is trying to provide, but I believe that they are band-aid remedies and we should instead tackle the causes of high stress and mental illness at Thacher and work on preventative measures instead of later treatment.” Several students linked the high levels of stress at Thacher to the demanding workload. One student observed that “most of Thacher’s stress stems from the feeling of having no time,” returning to the theme of addressing an effect rather than a cause. In addition, another Thacher student remarked that “While the administration has made ground in their consideration of mental health, it still needs to work to eliminate the stigma surrounding mental illnesses.” Relating to this point, many students commented that they would feel uncomfortable attending these newly offered services, with one student confessing that they would “be too afraid to attend counseling or even yoga.” Until mental health becomes a topic which students can discuss without fear of judgment, the treatment of mental illness will be difficult.

This is not to say that Thacher students don’t appreciate the recent health and wellness initiatives. In the same survey of Thacher students, 73.4% of students felt that Thacher administration places “some value” or “a lot of value” on health and wellness. One Thacher junior wrote that “Mental health resources have gotten a lot more accessible since I have been here. The improvement is very much appreciated.” Thacher still has room for improvement in its perspective on mental health, but the overall trend towards increased focus on health and wellness is a step in the right direction.

In order to see Thacher administration’s perspective on the issue, I sat down with Dean of Students Sabina McMahon to discuss Thacher’s new focus on health and wellness.

Interview with Dean of Students Sabina McMahon:

Why is mental health important in a boarding school setting?

Emotional well-being for students is really important in terms of their physical and overall health, and their ability to manage the various responsibilities they have at the School. If you are taking care of yourself and you’re feeling emotionally healthy, then you are able to navigate the various things, either positive or negative, that come your way. It’s important for us as a school to focus on how we can help students be emotionally balanced so that they can cope with things that are challenging for them during their time here.

What steps has Thacher taken to improving the state of mental health at Thacher?

We’re very fortunate to have our students be vocal and direct with us about things they feel that students need while at Thacher. Last year, our School Chair Elliot Schiff, and then this year’s Chair Eric Oregel, have continued to talk to us about having resources that are available on campus for students. We have always had counseling available to students, but this year we have increased the number of counselors and the different timing when counselors are available. We’ve also created a structure so that students can directly contact counselors in a confidential way if they don’t feel comfortable going through a faculty member. We try to help students be emotionally healthy by helping them navigate moments of stress or feelings of being overwhelmed. Using programs like yoga, meditation, and the sessions that happiness expert Dr. Christine Carter has done with all of the students, help students learn to navigate situations where they are having difficulty moving forward.

Is there anything else you’d like to add about health and wellness at Thacher?

I would just encourage students to come forward and talk about ideas they might have in terms of what resources should be available to students. We provide education for students about depression, anxiety, and the symptoms that help you understand your feelings and the significance of those feelings. This will help students evaluate whether they should go process with someone to understand what’s really happening with them at that moment.  Having students consult with a counselor instead of keeping everything hidden and inside is critical to gaining emotional health. Working with students on this issue is the best path moving forward, and I am very grateful for the students who have reached out to share their thoughts about what might be most supportive for students on campus. We are working together to help the School continue to improve in the area of emotional well-being and mental health.