Mental Health in the AJA High School
High school students are not alright. Over the past years, the quality of high school students’ mental health has plummeted precipitously. Between 2007 and 2016, national adolescent death from suicide rose by 84%. In 2019, approximately one in four female high school students seriously considered attempting suicide. The pandemic and recent political turmoil has only exacerbated these trends in high school students’ mental health.
As a major component of teenagers’ lives, school would, ideally, support their mental health. In reality, on a national scale, the pressure and workload from school does the opposite, taking a heavy toll on mental health.
According to the Pew Research Center, “When it comes to the pressures teens face, academics tops the list: 61% of teens say they feel a lot of pressure to get good grades.” In comparison, approximately 28% of teens feel pressure to “look good” and “fit in socially,” approximately 21% of teens feel pressure to “be involved in extracurricular activities” and “be good at sports,” and approximately 5% feel pressure to use drugs or drink alcohol. As seens by these statistics, nationally, academic pressure holds considerable liability for putting stress on teenagers, and consequently undermining their mental health.
By no means does this national phenomenon exclude the AJA High School. Senior Ella Goldstein reflected on the student body’s mental health, saying that it “seems like it could use improvement,” but she noted that she believes this to be “a reflection of society as a whole, specifically the pressure society puts on high schoolers, rather than AJA specifically.” Similarly, junior Gaviella Bader said, “I feel like most of the kids here have some issues and just being at school, or the school environment, is making it worse.”
High School Counselor Dr. Pam Mason said that the AJA High School thoughtfully tries to manage the stress that accompanies schoolwork. She explained that, officially, no teacher should assign more than 20 minutes of homework for one night for non-AP classes. However, she noted that, in actual practice, a class’s daily homework exceeds this limit more often than not. Yet, Dr. Mason added that she is consistently talking with the administration to work on finding a balanced workload for students.
When students received a survey to reflect on how school relates to their mental health, many students mentioned detrimental effects from overwhelming schoolwork. One student anonymously stated, “The school claims that they care about mental health, but then disregards those claims and gives a tremendous amount of work.” Junior Adam Berkowitz described the workload as “unfair and unreasonable,” as “it can have adverse effects on [our] mental health because of the strain.”
However, it appears the strain has decreased for some students over the course of the year. Sophomore Shayli Tzionov said, “In the beginning of the year, everything was very stressful and homework was piled up every day… I feel like as we get to the end of the school year, there has been less homework given and some teachers have become more understanding.”
Regardless of whether or not schoolwork causes undue stress, the reality remains that some students will always struggle with their mental health and will need support from the school. AJA places a strong emphasis on providing this support. “Our most important mission — more than academics or anything — is student well-being,” Dr. Mason claimed.
While the school does focus on mental-health needs, Dr. Mason clarified that “schools are not meant to be places that treat mental health;” rather they should “provide support for students that are struggling with mental-health concerns.” She expounded on this distinction by explaining that her responsibility is “is to help support the school day. If someone’s really struggling beyond that, it’s not just a school-related issue.” In these cases, Dr. Mason partners with the family or outside specialists to ensure that the student receives the help they need outside the school building.
When it comes to supporting students’ mental health, Dr. Mason stressed that the student-teacher relationship is a crucial element of the process. “Teachers are the most important ingredient in supporting student mental health,” she said. Dr. Mason tells teachers how to look out for signs that a student may be struggling, such as irregularities in attendance, so that the teachers can help if needed. Teachers should try to communicate with students directly, but if a teacher remains concerned, during a weekly meeting they can work with Dr. Mason to “make sure that there’s an action item to follow up on any student’s well-being.”
Shayli stated that she has noticed teachers trying to support their students. “I also feel like you have teachers you can go to when you are not feeling like yourself that day,” she said. She further explained that teachers “will take their time to get to know each and every one of us so that they won’t feel like such a stranger to us, which I feel like makes us feel a lot more comfortable to open up on some things.” Furthermore, she noted that she has found that teachers will often check in on students when they seem to be struggling. Furthermore, each student has an advisor that they can reach out to if they are struggling in some school-related way.
In addition to teachers looking after their students, in order to try and identify the situations in which she can help students, Dr. Mason administers an annual “wellness survey.” The survey asks students to self-report their frequency of “worry” and “sadness,” as well as comment on their “sense of belonging” and overall “school satisfaction.” Dr. Mason admitted that not all students will be “completely truthful” on the survey, yet she added, “each time we’ve given [the survey], people did use it as a forum to share.” She explained that if the survey helps even one student speak up, then “it’s a success.”
Even with these systems in place, when asked to reflect on how the High School responds to students’ mental health needs, students feel that the school can do better. Senior Sivan Livnat explained that she feels the school “tries” to support students’ mental health, but sometimes comes up short.
Many students believe Dr. Mason serves as a helpful resource, yet many also wish she were more available for when they need support. Sivan feels that Dr. Mason “can be a good resource,” but as a single person, she is “not enough to support the plethora of mental health struggles that students have.” Sivan explained, “There is a lot of demand for mental health resources, and I feel like the supply isn’t enough.” Senior Danny Gadelov agreed, saying, “We cannot, obviously, all rely on one person.” However, it is worth noting that in a school of less than 100 students, the counselor-to-student ratio is much higher than that of most other private schools.
Furthermore, Dr. Mason never comes to school on Thursdays, as she has a part-time contract with the school. This can pose problems for students, because, as Sivan noted, “people still have mental health struggles on Thursday.” Although she hopes that “students feel comfortable going to a teacher or friends if they have a problem,” in certain circumstances Sivan believes “that’s not enough, and they need professional help.” To account for Dr. Mason’s weekly absence, Sivan proposed the idea that a second counselor comes to school on Thursdays. Regardless, she elaborated, in her opinion the school “should be better adept at helping students get more professional help.”
While most students find Dr. Mason helpful, other students avoid going to Dr. Mason for support. Sivan explained that occasionally “it’s hard for people to reach out and trust Dr. Mason because they feel that she’s too closely associated with the administration… people feel like there’s some sort of breach of privacy.” For the students who do feel hesitant to reach out to Dr. Mason, finding other mental-health support in school can become challenging.
Although students have concerns about reaching out to the school counselor, Dr. Mason stressed that she prioritizes confidentiality. She stated, “I would always keep the child’s information confidential, even if it came in conflict with my administrative role.” Furthermore, as an administrator, Dr. Mason can work to ensure that other administrators hear students’ concerns. “My primary role here is to be a student advocate,” Dr. Mason said.
However, Dr. Mason believes there is a culture in the school where students believe that speaking up and sharing concerns will not make a difference. Yet, she explained that “if there’s something that’s happening, and I don’t know about it, I literally can’t help.”
While learning to ask for help is a crucial skill, senior Yered Wittenberg pointed out that sometimes students “don’t know how to speak up” or are too “scared to speak up.” He wishes that the school could initiate these conversations and do “a better job at reaching out to kids and preventing the problem before it happens.”
In general, students would like the school to speak more openly and often about mental health. Gavriella said, “I would like school to discuss mental health more openly because I feel like it’s kind of viewed as taboo.” As a result of this, she feels that there is a lack of awareness surrounding mental health, which is “not conducive to a good environment for learning.”
As of now, the school has some systems in place to spread mental-health awareness. For example, students recently heard from Be Seen & Heard, a body safety and education program. Furthermore, during minimester, Dr. Mason taught a course called “Role Play Being a Psychologist for a Day,” in which students read case studies describing mental health symptoms and accounts of behaviors. Then the group discussed the information and “diagnosed” the individuals. Dr. Mason also ran a course called “Color Me Calm,” which teaches students different relaxation techniques.
In order to further increase mental-health awareness, Dr. Mason said, “I would love to… put together a task force or a committee of students to help me arrange for speakers that are relevant and interesting.” Furthermore, Dr. Mason wants to begin sharing a weekly “wellness tip” with the student body.
Overall, the AJA High School does not perfectly respond to students’ mental-health needs; it can even often exacerbate them through overwhelming academic responsibilities. That being said, in a country that is plagued by mental-health concerns — especially prevalent in high schools— the AJA High School does put in considerable effort to try and support students. The student body is surrounded by a caring community that creates systems to support them. AJA High school students are not alright, but they are not alone.
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