Handling pressure

On a busy day, school psychologist Sheila Siegel doesn’t have time for lunch between her classes and the students who stop by to see her in her office.

“I’ve seen kids every single period so that’s five or six kids in a day,” Siegel said. “It’s happened a lot this year.”

Siegel, school counselor Luba Bek and Chaplain Father J. Young make up the school’s counseling team that Mark DeAntonio, the Director of Inpatient Child and Adolescent Service at UCLA Psychiatry, called a model for schools across the country, Young said. Bek and Siegel have adjacent offices tucked into the second floor of Chalmers behind the Advancement Office.

Most students who see the counselors seek help for dealing with common teenage experiences such as breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend or a conflict with their parents or a teacher.

The counselors also help students with managing stress.

“The majority of kids don’t have major psychiatric disorders but they’re just overwhelmed and if you know Harvard-Westlake you can get really overwhelmed,” Bek added.

Siegel estimates that she and Bek have seen around 10 percent of the student body. Many students visit either of the school counselors on their own or with their friends who are concerned about them.

The largest source of referrals to the school counselors is from teachers or deans who notice concerning changes in a student’s behavior, Bek said.

“Sometimes your teachers notice that somebody is crying in class or somebody’s grades are dropping or somebody writes something really dark in their personal essays or somebody draws something on their paper that is alarming,” Bek said.

Teachers pass on these concerns to the deans who meet every week with the school counselors, Young and Head of Upper School Audrius Barzdukas to discuss students with any “academic, emotional or other issues,” Young said.

“Each dean discusses any kids who might be having any issue and we confer to come up with the best plan to help that individual kid,” Young said.

“Red flags,” where a student reveals in Peer Support that they are at risk of harming themselves, another person or are being abused must be reported to a member of the counseling team by the group leader.

“Peer Support is not meant to deal with mental health issues,” Bek said. “However, very often we first discover that a kid is having some issues and I wouldn’t put a label of mental illness on it, but some emotional problems — some psychological problems.”

Bek added that students tend to feel more comfortable first sharing such issues in a “controlled environment with their peers,” even if they know that what they say will result in a session with the counselor.

“If the kids don’t have Peer Support, they might never come out with the issue,” Bek said. “Peer Support has a culture that says it’s okay to seek help.”

Parents, on the other hand, rarely ask for their child to see the school counselor, Bek said.

“There’s some stigma to it,” Bek said. “Parents try to keep that away from the school. If they find out their child is depressed or that their child has anxiety or that my child is extremely stressed to the point of really not functioning, they think the school will think less of child and his college career or be diverted to something less prestigious.”

Bek said students who visit her office by their own choice or due to a referral ask her “Are you going to tell my parents?” or ask her to promise that she will not tell the student’s parents.

“My answer is always ‘I don’t know’ until you talk.’” Bek said. “I promise only one thing and that is I will never do anything that kid will not know about.”

If she feels it is necessary to call parents because the student has a serious issue, Bek always will tell the student before calling. She usually gives the student a chance to either tell his or her parents themselves or call the parent in front of the student.

“In my experience, a lot of kids do choose to tell the parents themselves because when you do that you feel like you have the control as opposed to an adult,” Bek said. “The reason we do tell the parents, your parents are in charge of you and are the most important person in your life.”

If a student is a minor under 18, parental privilege allows the parents to know about anything that is told to the psychologist but Siegel emphasized that parents are only called “if the kid is in danger or we think the kid needs medication or hospitalization or some serious kind of intervention.”

“We keep things confidential,” Siegel said. “We try to not have to tell [the parents] because we want to have a relationship with the student. If we explain it that way most parents will say fine [to the confidentiality].”

The school counselors share information with teachers only with the permission of the parents.

“The teachers get notified by us that a kid is experiencing something–like when the kid is depressed or changing medication which takes some time to work,” Bek said. “We ask the teachers to be lenient and patient.”

The purpose of seeing a student for the first time is to assess if they will need more meetings with the school counselors or whether the student’s issues are serious enough that he or she will be required to see an outside psychologist for diagnosis possibly continuing therapy.

Students will be told to see an outside psychologist of their choosing or one that the counselors recommend that has worked with Harvard-Westlake students before and sometimes specializes in the student’s particular problem.

Siegel said the most common long-term mental disorders that affect students are anxiety and depression, which can have  serious consequences on their school performance.

“There are a group of kids who are troubled,” Siegel said. “They can’t do school work. Maybe they can’t finish and they have to drop a class, get incompletes and maybe finish over the summer.”

In these cases, school counselors do communicate with out-of-school psychologists and therapists to coordinate treatment and accommodations at school. Siegel said that students who were seriously impacted by mental health issues have finished their coursework over the summer supervised by an outside tutoring company. The school counselors avoid seeing a particular student on a regular basis and establishing a close relationship with one as they would not be able to see that student if a school crisis occurred. In a few cases, Bek has ended up seeing the student regularly for more than five or six sessions.

“We can do it if the kid cannot afford therapy but usually we can find a professional who works on a sliding scale,” Bek said. “If the parents are absolutely totally against it, this is a gray area because the parents have to consent any medical care but in this case we’re a non-medical professional — a teacher just here to talk — a little loophole.”

When a full psychiatric evaluation is necessary in a crisis situation with a potentially suicidal patient, the school counselors use a connection at UCLA Department of Psychiatry to get the student evaluated quickly.

“It’s extremely difficult to quickly get into the office of a psychiatrist, especially a good psychiatrist,” Bek said. “We have a network of doctors [that we use] who are very reputable and most of them work with UCLA. We ask them for a favor to get the kid in for an assessment—not to see them on a regular basis.”

In these cases, sometimes push comes to shove with parents who resist intervention, Bek said.

“Ethically or legally, you take a kid to this therapist, we’re not giving them an option,” Bek said.

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