The Student News Site of Harvard-Westlake School

The Harvard-Westlake Chronicle

The Student News Site of Harvard-Westlake School

The Harvard-Westlake Chronicle

The Student News Site of Harvard-Westlake School

The Harvard-Westlake Chronicle

Behind the Wellness Plan

Amelia Chiarelli/Chronicle
Two students are seen sitting at tables on the quad having a conversation.

The school is implementing new schoolwide wellness initiatives in response to recent student deaths in the community, as announced in an email from President Rick Commons on Aug. 1. The current Mental Health and Wellness Plan , which has been in development since early July, includes many steps the school is taking this upcoming year to improve student mental health. Among other efforts, the school plans on partnering with outside mental health organizations, assigning every upper school student a counselor and creating a wellness center at the upper school campus.

Commons said the current plan is still in development and will be edited frequently to accommodate the needs of students and other members of the community.

“We call [the Wellness Plan] a working document because it will expand, but it probably won’t contract much,” Commons said. “ If we find that things are not functioning the way we expect them to, we will jettison those things. We will add new things that achieve the goals that we’re after, but it’s not a one and done. It will be updated daily as we think about what we can do to make sure that we’re taking care of every student and every member of our community in the best ways possible.”

Head of Upper School Beth Slattery said achieving student well-being would take reflection from not just the school but students and parents as well.

“Students don’t want it to become less rigorous,” Slattery said. “They don’t want you to accommodate everything, but they still want you to support them when they need [it]. [It’s important] how each one of us thinks about our own role in the well-being of each other. Instead of just the school saying this is what we’re going to do to think about [student] well-being, do [students] think about what [they] do for the well-being of each other? Parents, what is your role? What are our roles in the culture that we’ve created?”

Counselor Michelle Bracken said the school will prioritze communication with parents about student mental health and will hold conversations about mental well-being and stress management with students. .

“In the past, we would reach out to a parent when there was a need,” Bracken said. “As far as contact from us, it was really only when there was an issue, like a safety issue with a student, and we had to contact them. Now, we plan to have many more [meetings] to have casual conversations about concerns that parents have surrounding mental health, sleep, social media and stress. [We’re] trying to have many more of those meetings, whether they’re on Zoom or in-person conversations where parents can have a discussion and feel comfortable to ask questions.”

In collaboration with the administration and counselors , Prefect Council worked on the new mental health and wellness initiatives over the summer. Senior Prefect Elizabeth Johnstone ’24 said she appreciated the administration taking student ideas into account when creating the Wellness Plan.

“Prefect Council met multiple times via zoom throughout the summer to discuss policies and initiatives that we believed the Wellness Plan should include,” Johnstone said. “We communicated those ideas with the counselors and administration, and many of those ideas ended up in the final Wellness Plan. From what they told us, it seemed like they were very careful about including various stakeholder groups, perspectives and needs when creating the Wellness Plan, so we were very happy with how they went about doing that.”

According to the email from Commons, each upper school student will be assigned to a counselor when they arrive to the Upper School as a sophomore, and current juniors and seniors will also be assigned counselors. Bracken said assigning counselors would increase personal relationships between staff and students while reducing the stigma of seeing a counselor.

“Even if you’re not struggling, the idea is there are always ways you can improve your stress, your communication, your relationships [or] those kinds of things,” Bracken said. “[There are a lot of things] we can do with assigning the counselors, where all the rising sophomores will have a check-in with a counselor before the end of the first quarter, to transition to 10th grade.”

There are several organizations and resources outside of the school that serve to help teens with mental health. Among these is Teen Talk, an anonymous space where teens can reach out to others their age for guidance, according to Eric Lee ’25, who volunteers with Teen Talk, believes the counselors can reduce the stigma around mental health through gaining trust from students.

“Teen Talk is great because the whole platform is anonymous,” Lee said. “It’s a lot easier to say what you want to say because you can trust the system and it’s confidential, but [at school], people are still scared to use the counseling team, since there is a stigma around seeing a counselor. One of the most fundamental things that I think is important to any mental health system is trust. So if I were in the counseling team’s shoes, my first thought would be, how do I foster trust within the student body?”

In addition to assigning all new upper school students to counselors, there will also be a new sophomore advisory class with a new focus in the curriculum on mental health. FAC Chair and Science Teacher Heather Audesirk said faculty members have been working in a multitude of ways in coordination with the plan.

“Some teachers are taking on additional responsibilities to help run the new sophomore advisory program that is starting this year and all teachers are getting additional [emotional] and mental health training as part of our professional development,” Audesirk said. “There are also several committees that are working on examining policies, philosophies and norms that we can bring to the school to help improve student emotional health and well-being.”

Johnstone said one of Prefect Council’s primary aspirations for the upcoming year is to provide a more lively and holistic student experience for everyone, instead of focusing solely on academics and college admissions.

“One of our main goals for this year is to really dive deeply into making the Harvard-Westlake experience a transformational one over transactional, where you drive through, do your schooling and get your diploma at the end,” Johnstone said. “That’s how a lot of people see it, but Prefect Council’s role should be helping to make student life more engaging for every single person, and then making it that transformative experience, even if you may come here and your parents may send you here to get that “good college outcome” that a lot of people are looking for. Our job is to make sure that you get so much more than that.”

Audesirk said she wants students to know teachers are well-intentioned and hopes teachers will be sympathetic towards all students.

“I hope that students know that their teachers genuinely want to help them as a resource to them in any way we can – to listen, help them get help if needed, whether it be academics, mental health or emotional support,” Audesirk said. “I [also] hope that all teachers keep in mind that our students are still struggling with their mental health more than they ever were before the pandemic, that they are nervous about this year given the tragic events of last year and this summer and that they approach this year with compassion, empathy and thoughtfulness for their students.”

Commons said the current culture surrounding mental health at the school does not encourage students to ask for help but he hopes that students will begin to prioritize their health even if it means having to talk to someone.

“It’s not part of our culture right now that you stop everything that you’re doing to take care of your friend and get that friend to an adult that you trust,” Commons said. “If we can establish that as a norm, I think that the natural tendency that somebody in crisis might have to handle that crisis on their own will be combated by a culture that says you can’t do this on your own. You must talk to somebody, and that’s not allowed really in the way in which we now function in our school.”

Commons said his long-term hope for the initiatives is that they help create a school culture that values wellness.

“We’d like people say, ‘yeah, [wellness] is definitely something you you feel when you’re at school,’” Commons said. “You know where resources are, students are taking care of each other, teachers are taking care of students, counselors, learning specialists and athletics trainers. Whatever it may be, there’s this sense that when you come to school, there’s a culture of excellence and an equal kind of presence in the lives of all of us is a culture where we’re taking care of the mental health and wellness of everyone in the community.”

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Hannah Shahidi, Assistant News Editor
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    Harold A MaioAug 25, 2023 at 9:51 pm

    —reducing the stigma of seeing a counselor????

    Not rejecting it? Continue to be influenced by those taught and teaching it?

    Continue to be influenced to teach it?