Confronting Mental Health on Campus

By Clarissa Speyer-Stocks ’16

The Office of Adolescent Health reports that approximately 30 percent of high school aged students in the United States felt symptoms of depression within the last 12 months of taking the survey. In addition, the rate of people aged 15-16 with depression nearly doubled between the 1980s and the 2000s.

The Catlin Gabel School provides a high standard of education, however, as a result, it can be a stressful environment. But with a large culture of overachieving and overextending one’s self, students can be at risk of anxiety and depression.

CatlinSpeak spoke with Assistant Head of Upper School and Dean of Students Aline Garcia-Rubio ’93.

She discussed the changing culture of both Catlin Gabel and society with regards to depression and anxiety and what support is available for students at the school.

Garcia-Rubio explained that the school has always worked to take the stress and mental health of students seriously. Commenting on the priorities in place when tackling the sensitive topic, she explained, “the short answer is that the top priority is health. There’s a gray area of stress and anxiety, right? So there’s is a certain amount of stress that can be productive and helpful and you can cross a line where it is not productive and helpful, and then it’s a mental health question. So as soon as it becomes a mental health question where the anxiety or the stress are an impediment to a healthy  life. That’s when we make that a priority.”

She continued by saying, “Up to a certain point we are going to deal with social and emotional stress or academic stress in a certain way in terms of managing the stress but not necessarily that was the main priority but focusing more on everything that is happening for a student. But then once it crosses a line that there’s a ‘pathology’ there then everything else gets paused, and the only priority is mental health and everything else is secondary.”

The conversation on mental health has changed dramatically not only in Catlin Gabel culture but across the United States. Society is a lot more open to speaking about mental health. As a result of the changing views on mental health, Catlin Gabel has also shifted in its available resources.

Some of these changes include, but are not limited to, reduced workload policy, encouragement to talk to teachers, inclusivity and diversity programs, mindfulness, and the open discussion about mental health that teachers like Casey Mills and Renee Jenkinson have started in health classes. Smaller changes also help, such as the schedule changes which have continued to provide students with more sleep by limiting how many classes they have to prep for each day.

“I would say we are talking as if there is an implicit correlation between homework and stress and anxiety,” explains Garcia Rubio. “And although there may be a correlation, it may not be a causation and we have to be careful about that. I hypothesize to myself that stress for students, it is less about the amount of homework they have, and more about the things they are doing–and that is a significant shift over the last decade or so.”

She continued by discussing how students deal with classes and stress in the school currently:

“If I look at when I was a student at Catlin Gabel, people were taking five classes, on occasion six, and maybe doing athletics or maybe mock trial. When I look at any Catlin Gabel student these days, they’re writing articles for New Media, and are involved in sports, and have started a non-profit, and they volunteer within differents school,” describes Garcia Rubio.

Casey's office is a great place for students to get help from. (Photo: Clarissa Speyer-Stock ’16)

Casey’s office is a great place for students to get help from. (Photo: Clarissa Speyer-Stock ’16)

“There’s just so many things that you guys are involved in and there’s a lot of learning associated with it, but it’s not necessarily academic work. And I think there’s great value in all of that and those learning processes, but there’s also that the state of college admissions has shifted enormously. And I think that’s a reality of the pressure you guys are living under is higher. In that the selectivity of colleges has increased that there’s a reality and fear in what students are going to professionally, when they graduate from college. And there’s an anxiety and fear (from parents) on what is my child going to do. And then there is just the state of the world and that it is a more anxious based world. But there are so many variables.”

But teachers need to  handle  the situations on a case by case basis. Garcia-Rubio explains that it is different for everyone. Sometimes the counselors will advocate for “decreased work load makes sense, sometimes it doesn’t. Some students need a safe space sometimes they need to be in contained environments during free blocks. Sometimes they need more free blocks. It just varies by student”

“And there are times when student needs a sort of safe environment outside from their home, and we’ll provide that. There are other times where we say this student need something bigger than what the school can provide,” explains Garcia Rubio.”

She continued by explaining that the school encourages “parents to seek outside mental health services for the student” in cases of depression or anxiety, if and when necessary.

It is apparent that students are under a lot of pressure be it parental, academic, or extracurricular. Whatever the stressors people are dealing with, people like Garcia-Rubio, Mills, and other teachers are available and open to speak on mental health support system in place at Catlin Gabel. Because the top priority is not where you go to college or how many extracurriculars you have while maintaining a 4.0 GPA, in the school’s view, the top priority is your own health.