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Providing a Sense of Self

Mercersburg Responds to Mental Health Challenges in Multiple Ways

Last fall as the deadline neared for students to make schedule changes, Mercersburg Dean of Academics Jennifer Miller Smith ’97, P ’23, ’24 noticed a trend. While most students were making legitimate requests, some wanted to take less demanding classes so they would feel better about their academic performance.

Ability was not a factor. The students are smart, capable, and have a world of resources at their fingertips.

The schedule requests had more to do with their comfort level when facing difficulty. A
99 percent in a regular college preparatory class would feel better than a 92 in an
advanced class.

If the schedule change meant a higher grade, perhaps that would look better on a transcript. Maybe that would edge out the competition on a college application.

Hopefully that would reduce an overall feeling of anxiety and stress.

Our students are displaying attitudes in line with national trends. Recent surveys conducted by the Education Week Research Center found that the top five stressors for students are:

  • Stress related to finishing schoolwork/homework
  • Grades/test results
  • Concerns about their physical appearance
  • Anxiety over societal issues/news
  • Concerns about how others perceive them

Teens need to view difficulty as potential for growth, and that is a challenge Mercersburg continues to accept, even as students navigate an increasingly complex world.

Nationally, several factors seem to be contributing to a reduced capacity to face adversity. Combine performance anxiety with social media’s comparison culture, add in the lack of social interaction during the pandemic, and it’s understandable how today’s teens could feel insecure.

As adolescents grapple with their sense of self, they might feel that they don’t measure up to others, and that can have an impact on mental health.

“There’s a rise in feelings of anxiety, and depression also, in teens compared to 20 years ago,” Smith said. “There’s a link in timing between growing up with social media and this growing anxiety and depression.

“The pressing issue is how do we acknowledge that this is likely impacting our students, help them learn how to use it effectively, and then also work through the mental struggles that may come along with it?”

Mercersburg has acknowledged the issue in several ways. A third mental health counselor was hired. A second learning services specialist was added.

Changes were made to the daily schedule in order to reduce student stress, and student survey responses seem to indicate that Mercersburg is making progress in this area. Now there are at most only four classes per day, allowing students to have a deeper resonance with material they are learning. Additionally, students have less transitions so they don’t have to switch gears as often, and their evenings can be spent on less preparation focused on fewer subjects (homework for three to four classes versus homework for five to six classes). The schedule change also allows for students to get more sleep by still having a set time for lights out in the dorms at night with the complement of a later start in the morning.

“We have students who are used to excelling at pretty much everything they do,” said Amy Shaffer Post ’02, Mercersburg’s social emotional learning counselor. “When they start to hit challenges, it can be hard for them to recognize that challenge is growth. Instead, they can see a challenge as ‘I’m not being successful at this.’ Kids will come in and tell me that they have failed an exam, and in our conversation, I find out they got a B.”

She assures them that they did not fail.

“Their standard can be so high and the competition, especially around college admissions, is so steep right now that it can cause our kids a lot of stress,” Shaffer Post said. “That anxiety or the lack of performance that they feel can lead to difficulties, issues, and concerns. It can lead to just really struggling to feel good about themselves and to recognize their own strengths.”

Excessive time spent on social media can take away from many other healthy activities and can get in the way of developing and maintaining appropriate social relationships, which is important for the healthy development of kids and teens, according to Jennifer Sipes P ’22, a licensed clinical social worker, and Bethany Galey ’02, a licensed professional counselor, who are both part of Mercersburg’s counseling team.

“There’s overwhelming neuroscience evidence that children aren’t really ready for the terrifying ‘stage fright’ of always being in the public sphere because of their online identity,” said Associate Head of School Jennifer Craig. “This is a group of people who are naturally and appropriately in the midst of developing answers to the ‘who am I and why am I the way I am?’”

Mercersburg invests in the mental health of students through providing counseling on campus, outside referrals for professional counseling, peer support groups, several affinity groups so students can connect over particular issues/identities, and speakers–from both within the community and from the outside. For example, Dr. Tracy Dennis-Tiwary, anxiety researcher, entrepreneur, and author, gave the Ammerman Family Lecture at Mercersburg in October.

Students can schedule counseling appointments through a nurse at the Rutherford Health and Wellness Center. They can talk with their adviser or another trusted adult on campus who can submit a counseling referral. They can email a counselor directly. Or they can walk into the health center and ask to talk to a counselor.

“We try to see students when they walk in,” Shaffer Post said. “Counselors can see a student in crisis after hours if needed because a counselor is on call around the clock. That doesn’t mean that they are in many, many times. It might just be one time they needed someone to talk with.”

As the demand for counseling services increases, the three licensed professional therapists on staff support students and don’t shy away from difficult conversations.

“We take any comment, no matter how haphazardly it may be stated, very seriously, especially if it’s related to thoughts of self-harm,” Shaffer Post said. “We also brought Youth Mental Health First Aid to campus this year.”

About 30 faculty and staff members are trained in Youth Mental Health First Aid, a national certification on what to look for and how to support students. Campus nurses and those who work in the dorms need to feel that they have the tools necessary to support students, and that they can differentiate between something they can handle as a supportive adult versus something that needs to be handled by someone more knowledgeable in this area, Shaffer Post said, noting that posters around campus include not only school counseling information but also have information on how to access the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Last year for Mental Health Awareness Month in May, the counseling staff promoted “Mental Health Matters.”

They sold “Mental Health Matters” T-shirts that faculty and staff members could purchase and wear “to indicate to our students that we do care, we want to know, and we’re here to talk about it,” Shaffer Post said.

The staff also sponsored a day at lunch when students could sign a pledge to say they were going to work against or work to stop the stigma around mental health.

They distributed green wristbands proclaiming, “Mental Health Awareness: No Stigma.”

“We’re not going to be a school that acts like it doesn’t exist,” Shaffer Post said. “Not that it needs to be in the forefront by any means, but even as we think about the principles behind meaning and mastery, one of the first ones that we address as a community is emotional safety in the classroom, and you can’t address emotional safety without addressing mental health.”

The counseling team piloted a mental health group for male-identifying students last year. The group was so successful that it is meeting monthly this year. It is designed for male students to connect with staff to discuss specific needs related to emotional wellness and mental health needs for men.

“When they start to hit challenges, it can be hard for them to recognize that challenge is growth.”

Amy Shaffer Post ’02,
social emotional learning counselor

Another example of programming that fosters a community culture of belonging is family-style meals. Students are not allowed to use their phones at lunch, and they sit with students, faculty, and staff who they get to know over the course of two to three weeks.

“While this is certainly a tradition here at Mercersburg, ‘breaking bread’ together is rooted in the values of everyone belonging, everyone being asked to learn from myriad perspectives, and everyone being open to new people in their lives,” Craig said. “Finding ways to develop a strong sense of interdependence amongst teenagers can often lead to better culture and better health.”

The school also is responding to students behind the scenes.

“One thing we’ve initiated this year is the community concern reporting form. Students who are struggling or are concerned about someone else’s struggle can fill it out, and the form remains private,” Craig said. “The protection afforded students who want to come forward about concerns for self or for one another is important, and we’re finding that students feel more comfortable initially stepping forward in an online forum. Eventually, they DO want to talk with someone, but they find this approach easier to start.”

The Office of the U.S. Surgeon General published a report in 2023 titled, “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation.” It got the attention of many school leaders and it’s something our own Board of Regents President Tom Hadzor ’72 wants to focus on during his tenure. In an interview last year, Hadzor said, “The state of mental health at Mercersburg is going to be something that I’d like the Board to look at during the course of the next year, and hopefully we can be helpful in some way as the school continues to invest in the mental health of our students.”

As students’ needs arise and culture changes, helping them develop meaningful relationships and understand the benefits of a connected community like Mercersburg Academy will be vitally important for them to become the adults they are meant to be.

 


What can parents do to support teens who are struggling?

Be mindful of your child’s mental health.

  • Model healthy behavior.
  • Watch for any major changes in behavior.
  • Keep the lines of communication open to explore concerns.
  • Understand the warning signs of possible concerns/struggles:
    • Sudden loss of interest in things they were interested in or involved with before
    • Major changes in sleeping or eating habits or regular routines
    • Change in interactions with others–isolating themselves and spending all their time alone
    • Loss of interest in relationships with friends and/or family
    • Dramatic weight change
    • Changes in academic habits that seem more intense than in the past
    • Displaying running thoughts or worries
    • Refusing to communicate
    • Obsession with very specific goals
    • Signs of drug or alcohol abuse
    • Signs of self-injury
    • Signs of suicidal thoughts

Seek professional help when an adolescent displays or shares mental health concerns. There are three professional mental health providers who are full-time employees at Mercersburg. They can directly assist students or provide advice and referrals.

Suggestions from Jennifer Sipes P ’22, licensed clinical social worker, and Bethany Galey ’02, licensed professional counselor

Photo: Counselors Amy Shaffer Post ’02, Bethany Galey ’02, and Jennifer Sipes P ’22 make students’ mental health a priority at Mercersburg.

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