School psychologist Sheila Siegel worked behind closed doors. On the other side of the drawn blinds, students fussed with magnetic toys on a black leather sofa.
Over the past 20 years, Siegel has transformed the mental health portion of Harvard-Westlake, but she will not be returning in the fall when her post becomes a full time commitment.
“Change is good,” Siegel said. “It’s good for institutions, it’s good for the people, but it doesn’t mean it’s not hard to leave.”
Siegel looks forward to exploring new things after she retires.
“After 20 years, I don’t want to start working full time,” she said. “There are things that I want to do like art, and I may try to get another part time job but I’m very sad to leave. I’m really going to miss the interaction with the kids.”
Students like Bronty O’Leary ’13 turned to Siegel for emotional support after the death of Justin Carr ’14.
“It’s a relaxed environment. She kicks her feet up on a chair and you feel safe telling her anything. She treats you like an adult,” O’Leary ’13 said.
“We help kids when they break up with their boyfriends or girlfriends but there’s a gamut from everyday kind of problems to huge problems: child abuse, cutting or people feeling suicidal,” Siegel said.
After her twin sons graduated in 1992 and after giving up on private practice, Siegel conducted a survey of students at Harvard-Westlake to enlighten her about adolescents.
“There were things that I didn’t know as a parent,” she said.
President Thomas Hudnut hired her soon after to work one day a week, which soon became three days going back and forth between the upper and middle school campuses.
“There were emotional issues and things happening,” she said. “There was this feeling that students needed professional support. I think what I brought was the awareness that there was a process.”
Siegel almost left the school entirely to pursue glass blowing, but Hudnut convinced her to scale back to one day a week while attending art school. Therapy took time and glass blowing provided immediate satisfaction, she said. The art was demanding, but, Siegel returned to three days a week.
Siegel dealt with each problem uniquely, she said.
“It’s so variable,” she said. “No situation is ever the same. There are things we are very careful to do but we can’t predict who absolutely will act on their feelings.”
Sometimes, parents ignore their children’s problems and refuse to seek professional help so Siegel stepped in as a therapist on a regular basis though she usually referred students and faculty to outside psychologists.
“Our job is not to do ongoing counseling but there are many cases when we do,” she said. “Some schools will sweep problems under the rug but our goal is to help the kid so they can stay here.”
The Peer Support program grew from 50 students to around 300 under Siegel.
“She gives you so many stories about her life and it not only makes you able to relate to her more but also feel more comfortable because she trusts you as a leader,” Peer Support Coordinator Laurel Aberle ’13 said.
The counseling team has expanded since Siegel’s arrival to Luba Bek, Michelle Bracken, Father J. Young and Middle School Psychologist Susan Ko.
“We have a really good, cutting edge way of approaching students about their problems,” Siegel said.
“That’s not our reputation in the community but in fact, it’s sort of the big secret,” she said. “Our concern is the mental health and well being of the student even before education. And we have created psychological services that focus first on emotional health then on intellectual abilities. I think we do a really good job of that. I don’t think things are really going to change.”