Mental health programs at Whitman have expanded significantly over the last decade. In 2014, former Principal Alan Goodwin created Stressbusters, a council of parents focused on reducing student stress. The next year, staff and students implemented Sources of Strength, a youth-led suicide prevention program that builds connections between students and faculty. The county also implemented Signs of Suicide, another suicide prevention program, during the 2017–2018 school year. That spring, the SGA began hosting mental health seminars in every class. The seminars, each of which included a student sharing their own experience and a presentation about different mental illnesses, have evolved to cover new conditions with each year. And this school year, OneWhitman discussions provided a new avenue for students to discuss mental health.
To assess how constructive these initiatives have been and what steps our community should take next, we sat down with students advocates, involved community members and dedicated faculty Feb. 13.
Participants: Junior Pia Alexander, English teacher Matthew Bruneel, school social worker Emily Callaghan, psychologist Karen Crist, counselor Angela Fang, sophomore Leo Levine, senior Harley Pomper and senior Anthony Rabinovich.
Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
The Black & White: What do you think of Whitman’s climate surrounding mental health?
Harley Pomper: It’s improved over the last few years. We definitely have a culture of awareness, but I don’t know if we necessarily have one of action regarding improving our mental health and circumstances right now. I also think that although people are more open about it, some people kind of treat it as a joke.
Angela Fang: I feel like, from a counseling perspective, it’s somewhat biased in a sense that we only see students who are more willing to talk about it. So I probably don’t see as many students who would be more closed off to it in terms of being open to talk about it. But there’s definitely a portion of people who still don’t quite fully understand it.
Matthew Bruneel: I worked here for five years and then left for the Peace Corps and came back, so I remember a pretty clear contrast of how Whitman used to be versus how it is now. It used to be that we never discussed depression or anxiety — that wasn’t really a part of the conversation when it came to student health. There was the book “Overachievers,” and there was a sense of the pressure that students are under, but it never got framed as a mental health issue. Now, it’s really become very open, transparent in the discussion. I don’t know about the resources, but definitely the discussion of it is better.
Emily Callaghan: My title is actually new here too; I’m the school social worker. So there’s obviously some sort of awareness and need that they decided to put a full time social worker at Whitman.
B&W: How effective do you think Whitman mental health initiatives have been?
Anthony Rabinovich: I have no idea what Sources of Strength is. I have friends who have and are going through the full spectrum of mental treatment options who have never heard of that. That speaks to the difficulties of getting resources that already exist.
Pia Alexander: In the mental health presentations, I really liked the student speakers because it gives a more personal view of what each person goes through. But other than that, it’s still kind of focused on statistics, and it’s hard to really see what mental illnesses they’re talking about. It says a bunch of hotlines that you can reach out to but nothing that’s really tangible and right there.
Leo Levine: In my experience with the mental health seminars, oftentimes the sort of things that will be said about mental illness feel very cookie cutter. It’s frustrating to me personally because I know people whose mental health and mental illnesses are expressed a lot of different ways.
Rabinovich: I appreciate the little bit of a focus on checking up on your friends, even if it’s a cookie cutter approach. Because that fosters the sense of, not only do these people care about me because they’re my friend, they legitimately want to see me improve as a person.
Karen Crist: I guess the question is how to continue these conversations between students. For me, it’s so powerful hearing about someone’s own experience, and then you can check in on a more regular basis with the people — you have a structure for that.
Levine: Something that worries me also is the fact that you sort of have developed this narrative of, I had mental health issues, and I went to treatment, ‘I went to therapy, and then I got better.’ In reality, recovery is not at all a linear process like that, and involves a lot of taking 12 steps forward, 10 and a half steps back. Recovery is not linear. We really have to establish the idea that maintaining your mental health is a constant thing.
B&W: What additional resources or initiatives do you think could help the Whitman community in addressing mental illness?
Fang: We see articles in the news about how your diet could affect your mental health or how your lifestyle can affect your mental health and things like that, and I think what we’ve been doing has done a really good job in the past two years of creating awareness in the community. But it would also be beneficial to our community to make everyone aware of what a positive mental health process would look like. On a daily basis, this would be helpful because, like Harley and Anthony said, we do have a lot of different resources in the community. But there’s something to be said about promoting overall positive mental health.
B&W: Do you think people at Whitman take mental health issues seriously enough?
Bruneel: I feel like only when it becomes a mental health crisis, does there actually become any accommodations for a student, rather than [them] saying, ‘I’m just stressed right now, I can’t do it’ and letting that be enough of a reason not to do an assignment or to get an extension or whatever it is. Nobody here feels in power to actually change those academic pressures or do anything about it, which is where mental health actually hits the wall.
Pomper: In areas of privilege, the stress is really high regarding academics because you have well educated parents of higher socioeconomic strata who have the background to push their kids. It might be the responsibility of that particular school to dial back the pressure, but in other areas, those higher expectations and higher standards for students are visibly shown to improve the education for students who don’t have other resources available. So it’s really tricky because a Whitman-tailored answer is going to be very different than an answer for another school system.
B&W: Right now, the majority of people in this circle identify as female. Do you think there’s a relationship between gender identity and mental health?
Alexander: So actually, my dad’s girlfriend is a therapist, and they were having a conversation a couple of days ago, where they were saying that females reach out more and that they were more willing to admit that they needed help. Although that may be true, I think it’s just so much on the individual — and I don’t really like to group people to say, ‘all girls are okay with getting help,’ because for a lot of them it’s still really hard to admit that they need it. I think a lot of guys feel the same way, so it’s not necessarily a gender thing and that might just be how the culture shapes it.
Levine: Just approaching mental health from the concept of gender is very difficult, especially because you need to be aware of the fact that trans communities are very disproportionately affected.
Pomper: If we’re talking in extreme generalities, females might reach out more, but there’s also a wide range of female dismissal of mental health issues. I think a lot of women experience the sort of circus of having to explain that it’s not related to their period or other factors, which can be really frustrating.
Bruneel: I do see one of my roles as a male teacher is to model what it means to be a male who is able to speak frankly about his emotions and to speak about things other than the typical masculine topics. I do really cherish that role, and I see how being a model for boys in particular is something that I can do. But that being said, these are also lessons and values that we can impart to all students.