Talking It Over

Camden* ’15 walks over to the brown couch and sits blankly for about a minute. He observes the scenic paintings on the walls and takes note of the five tissue boxes dispersed around the room. The silence is not awkward but instead a comforting stillness. Camden engages in small talk with the kind, wiry man with glasses who finally asks, “What’s on your mind?” Instantly, two or three thoughts come to the surface, and Camden’s one-hour psychiatry session begins.

When he was 14, Camden told his parents that it was hard for him to concentrate and that learning seemed more difficult for him than for his classmates. They decided he should see his mother’s therapist to address his concentration issues, but eventually, these sessions became a place for him to discuss his depression.

A year later, Camden and his family decided to switch to his current psychiatrist, the kind, wiry man in glasses, who would be able to prescribe antidepressants. Another reason for the change was that his first therapist tried to condense everything that he was feeling into one diagnosis without addressing his issues in depth, Camden said.

“It was obvious that he was trying to find one reason that was causing my problems, which had not even been fully explored through therapy,” Camden said.

Furthermore, the therapist also saw Camden’s mother, which made him hesitant to bring up family issues for fear of not being in an impartial environment.

“I believe that the most helpful thing is to have a person that is neutral, someone who is not a teacher and not a parent and sees just you,” school counselor Luba Bek said. “You can have a relationship as you the person, not you the student, you the athlete, you as the good boy, as the good or bad son, not you who doesn’t live up to the expectations of the older siblings. Everybody needs this neutral person who is ready to listen and ready to brainstorm.”

Within the first day of meeting his psychiatrist, Camden was diagnosed with depression, including depersonalization as a symptom. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, depersonalization is when an individual has experiences of unreality, detachment or being an outside observer with respect to one’s thoughts, feelings, sensations, body or actions. This includes a distorted sense of time, unreal sense of self and emotional or physical numbing. Soon after, he was diagnosed with an anxiety and non-verbal learning disorder. Currently, Camden’s psychiatrist prescribes Risperdal for him, an atypical neuroleptic medication often used to treat schizophrenia.

Camden is very careful when it comes to sharing this information. He believes that at Harvard-Westlake there is no stigma around seeing a therapist, but there might be one around the idea of mental illness and being diagnosed with depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. He believes that if his particular diagnoses were known, these labels might make a person look at him differently.

“I am not a fan of the term ‘mental illness’,” Bek said. “‘Mental illness’ is too big of a term to be thrown around. I believe people go to therapy because people have psychological issues, a psychological disorder. Anxiety and depression is not stigmatized like bipolar disorder or major learning disabilities.”

In a typical week, Bek sees about seven students for counseling for varied reasons. Anxiety is the most common reason that students come to her office, she said.

“Because you guys are stressed and you have such high expectations, you take a problem that is an everyday hassle and make it feel like it is a catastrophe,” she said. “Somebody has to bring you down and say, ‘Nope, getting a B- on your test is not the most horrible thing that can happen to you.’”

Penelope* ’16 began seeing a psychiatrist at the beginning of her junior year because she has performance anxiety.

“I get really nervous singing alone on stage,” she said. “It was hindering what I could and couldn’t do. It bothered me that there are things that other people could do, like auditioning for solos, and I was just too nervous to try.”

Talking over this issue has made performing a less crippling experience, but Penelope still feels nervous, she said.

Bek believes that the general anxiety among students is caused by a combination of pressures from parents, the demands of society and expectations of the individual student. She thinks that Harvard-Westlake is viewed as a tool to get into college, and that it is mostly the family, however loving and supportive, wanting their children to be successful that creates this stress. This pressure, compounded by the difficulty of getting into college, is what causes extreme stress, she said.

Adele* ’15, who began attending therapy and psychiatry sessions last year, believes that the environment at Harvard-Westlake puts a lot of pressure on students to be a certain kind of person.

“I don’t think that this [pressure] comes from the actual school, but from our peers who are constantly trying to be the best they can be, which is great but at the same time, is putting pressure on other people to do the same,” Adele said.

She said that she does not see herself as the typical Harvard-Westlake student who is “hyperactive, anxious and panicky.”

“I really don’t like this school [environment] but also, this is high school and high school is going to be hard everywhere,” she said.

Adele began seeking outside help after experiencing issues of trust and betrayal with two people very close to her. She had reached a very dark place where she would have panic attacks at points throughout the day and be unable to breathe, she said. Her parents were the ones that suggested she try therapy, which she did willingly.

For a period of time during the summer, she stopped seeing her therapist. It was during this break that her parents decided to get a divorce, which then triggered the same cycle of panic attacks and depression. Soon afterward, Adele decided to return to therapy.

Both her therapist and psychiatrist have introduced the idea of her going on antidepressants, which will help her anxiety and depression, Adele said.

“Sometimes I leave therapy thinking that my life sucks, but that is not because of the therapist, but because I am realizing new things about myself,” Adele said.

In therapy, Adele said she is working on how to stop immediately surrendering in situations of conflict because she has trouble expressing her feelings in a way that she believes will be understood.

Adele finds solace in having two people, her therapist and psychiatrist, whom she trusts and who know her very well, she said.

“My friends do a good job of checking up on me and being supportive through normal daily issues, but my therapist gives me advice from a completely third-party objective,” she said.

Camden also turns to his friends when he needs someone to talk to, but he attends therapy because he appreciates the insight of a professional, he said.

“Friends may tell me that they love me, but my therapist won’t do that,” Camden said. “Therapists are reflective, understanding and thinking things through, but friends are there for immediate support and consolation. Peer Support bridges the gap between friends and therapists.”

He believes that Peer Support is an environment where students learn to reflect in the manner of a therapist. Camden said that he finds it helpful to have other people his age reflect on and be aware of his experiences.

Adele, on the other hand, believes that Peer Support is not as confidential as it should be.

“I am not comfortable with giving very personal details to a group of strangers who also go to my school,” she said. “I don’t think the system works very well.”

Bek, who coordinates Peer Support, agrees with Camden and thinks that the organization is an excellent tool to deal with everyday issues. When there are breaches of confidentiality, they are dealt with very harshly, she said.

“The beauty of [Harvard-Westlake’s] counseling program is that we have options,” she said.

Students can come to see her, Director of Counseling and Psychological Services Kavita Ajmere, Chaplain J. Young or Assistant to the Head of Upper School Michelle Bracken, Bek said.

“Out of the four of us, there is someone the kid will be comfortable with,” Bek said.

When counseling a student, Bek is very transparent, she said.

“I have never done anything behind a kid’s back,” Bek said. “When the kid is ready, we will call the parents and tell them that therapy would be the best option. More often than not, the parents will be receptive.”

If an issue is not serious enough to break confidentiality and tell the parents, Bek will continue to work with the student until he or she is ready to speak to his or her parents. If the issue is a severe one, Bek will tell the student that she plans to call the parents. A situation is considered severe when the student seeking counsel is harming himself or herself or others are harming the student seeking counsel. From there, the students have three options: the student can tell the parents on his or her own, and Bek will follow up, which is the most popular choice; Bek and the student can call the parent together; or Bek can call the parents on her own and then relay all information back to the student afterward.

Bek suggested that Wyatt* ’15 go to therapy last year. He was never willing to approach his parents about therapy because at the time, his mother was opposed to the idea, he said.

“She was just afraid to consider that any one of her kids may have problems,” he said.

Wyatt was haunted by the legacy of his successful older siblings and felt like his life was taking a completely different path than theirs, he said.

To cope with his personal and family problems, Wyatt turned to drugs as a coping method. Use of marijuana, Xanax and alcohol became his method of avoiding his problems.

After a negative experience with a family therapist to deal with his drug problems, he is not as willing to pursue one-on-one therapy. He attributes this decision to the fact that he is now in a better place and that his family therapy experience was so terrible. The therapist told him everything that he was doing wrong instead of actually helping him address his issues, he said.

During this time, the school got involved with his drug use and overall behavior when two of his friends approached members of the counseling team, insisting that they were concerned about him, Wyatt said.

He felt that during these meetings with the counselors, he was being used to get more information about other students who they believed to be using drugs as well, he said.

“They tried to get more out of me than they tried to help with anything,” Wyatt said. “I had to meet with different people frequently, and they constantly asked me who I would do drugs with and where I did these things. It was really frustrating.”

Young, who also counsels students, says depending on the situation, he may have different goals when meeting with a student or group of students.

“Maybe we have heard a rumor where a group of kids are involved in X, Y and Z, and my goal, therefore, is to find out who the other people are because we are worried about them,” Young said. “I am usually very transparent about that.”

Forty percent of students that meet with him for counseling have been asked to come by a faculty member, Young estimated.

“Once a week there is a deans meeting to talk about kids who may have some sort of issue,” he said. “The counseling team [Ajmere, Bek and myself] as well as the deans and Head of Upper School Audrius Barzdukas are present.”

This meeting is where the group decides which member of the counseling team will talk to which student.

“If a teacher has noticed that a kid is sad, that is usually an easy conversation to have and he or she is usually receptive,” he said. “If it is something that feels more accusatory from the kid’s point of view, that is going to be less likely to have a receptive outcome.”

*Names have been changed

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