Review of Choate’s Mental Health Support Systems

One only has to glance at the blue and yellow Student Resources poster to see the variety of student-driven support groups that comprise a safety net for students at Choate. In the past year, students have created new clubs and committees to offer peers support, with a wide range of results. Existing organizations have also considered ways in which they could improve their outreach to the community.

Even with these peer support groups, it may be hard for students to initiate conversation. As Ms. Bender said, “It’s interesting. I would say that five or six years ago, we had a stronger sense of community, where if you were concerned about a friend, really helping them was finding help for them. And I don’t know why we’ve moved away from that. Perhaps students don’t trust the Health Center to keep information confidential or to prevent people from going on medical leave, which is all untrue. But it’s something out there, and Health Services needs to do more work to help students understand that this is not the case.”

Rebecca Lilenbaum ’17 said, “At the end of the day, it’s about whether students can recognize that they’re in a vulnerable state and can request help from us and other people.”

Health Center Associate Director Ms. Judith Bender said, “This is a year that really has introduced us to talking about a lot of things we haven’t talked about in the past. There have been a lot of hard conversations, such as the ones after the plays, after the elections, and some of the other things that have occurred on campus, that have forced us to look more seriously at student concerns and given us the opportunity to address them.”

Director of Health Services Dr. Diamond said, “What I love about this school is that these groups aren’t necessarily about treatment, but about talking, and through talking, you can find ways out of the pit you may be in. You find the friend, you find the counselor, you find your adviser, you find your prefect, you find your parents.”

Below are the stories of several support groups, new and old. Some of them have found success, while others have stumbled or failed, illustrating the diverse fates of peer support groups on campus. These groups are organized roughly in the order of their conception.

Student Health

Advisory Council

Created last fall to address student concerns regarding the health center, the Student Health Advisory Council (SHAC) has stalled because of communication issues. Various students, including Audrey Sze ’17 and Elena Turner ’17, had spearheaded the formation of the group. Dr. Diamond, the faculty adviser, hopes to restart the committee next fall.

He said, “I don’t want to let students who have expressed interest and commitment down, and I feel really terrible about it. I’ve done a poor job of communicating, partly since I’m not good with some of the electronics, but also partly due to other things that have come up in the Health Center. I just don’t want to lose the students’ trust in the endeavor; if you start something, the lack of continuing it risks a lot.”

Sze said, “The last time we met was a while ago, but we were laying out initiatives such as increasing access to contraceptives and making it less taboo. There were also things such as working on a mental health survey to see where students are struggling and need help.”

She also noted the distrust students had of the Health Center. “I think that groups like SHAC or Peer Educators, which are essentially a branch of the Health Center, have a certain connotation, since they are associated with the administration, and there’s some distrust there between the students and the administration,” she said.

Despite this, Turner is optimistic about SHAC. She said, “I think the idea of SHAC is great, because in the past, people didn’t know they could solve the issue of culture, and we can now address some of these issues in SHAC.”

Mental Health at Choate

Similarly, Mental Health at Choate (MHAC) was a club created with the goal of changing the culture surrounding mental health at school. However, the club floundered as founders Hadalee Goodman ’17, Claire Stover ’17, and Turner tried to coordinate meetings.

According to its Mission Statement, the club had intended to create “a nurturing environment for people to share personal experiences and opinions regarding mental health issues at Choate and beyond.” Their stated action plan was to hold weekly discussions on various facets of mental health and raise awareness of the issues on campus.

However, as founding Co-President Turner noted, time became a major obstacle. “As a cabinet, we never got around to holding club meetings; we only met once during senior fall. So MHAC is not officially a club anymore, since we didn’t have any members.”

Rather than holding meetings, MHAC had pivoted to sponsoring therapy dog events with Yale Hospital. Faculty adviser Dr. Diamond acknowledged the value of the therapy dog events, “Even though there is no formal MHAC anymore, the group assisted greatly with getting the therapy dogs to Choate, and hopefully we’ll see that program expand.”

Committee on

Respectful Relationships

Meanwhile, Committee on Respectful Relationships (CORR) co-founder Lily James ’17 was delighted at the number of applications the committee received for next year: 33. Out of those applications, the committee accepted 20 and selected three rising seniors as leaders for next year to continue facilitating conversations about healthy relationships for underclassmen on campus. James said, “That was an amazing moment when we realized we had so many applications, because we didn’t really know where it was going next year or if people would be interested as it’s a senior group, and we didn’t even know if the juniors would be interested, and it turns out that we got a lot of applications.”

Five students founded CORR last spring: Abigail Blair ’17, James, Caitlin Lawrence ’17, Rebecca Lilenbaum ’17, and Nicole Sellew ’17. Members of the committee work in pairs to facilitate discussions and serve as mentors in underclassmen dorms and facilitate discussions on healthy relationships. Members have received training from Planned Parenthood.

“Some kids weren’t very excited that we were visiting, since they feel that they’ve heard so much about hooking up and the hookup culture at Choate that they don’t want to hear more about it. But I think for the kids who were very excited about it and know that they’re in a vulnerable place and want to be better, I think it was very helpful,” Lilenbaum said.

James said, “The two dorms I worked in were Nichols and Quantrell, and I went to Quantrell once and had an amazing discussion. It actually went longer than the allotted time. The guys there were very open and interested in the topic, and then I heard from the prefects that they had stayed in the common room after we had left and then continued the conversation for two more hours. Our conversation gave an opening for them to start the conversation. And it’s a group of guys that you wouldn’t really expect to do this, also.”

Lilenbaum added, “At the end of the day, it’s not as if we can have a huge tangible impact. its social change we’re looking for. We’re looking to change the way people see themselves and their peers and the things are normalized and not normalized. So I think discussions are the best way to go about that change, and making sure we can be an inspiration for other students.”

Peer Educators

One of the goals for Peer Educators this year was to increase interactions with the community, and with the new daily schedule next year, the group hopes to reach more students more frequently. Faculty advisers Ms. Kyra Jenney and Mr. Zach Kafoglis started working with Peer Educators this year, and both look forward to continuing that work next year.

Ms. Jenney noted that only visiting dorms has a limited impact. “Getting to day students has been hard,” she said. “This year, we tried to carve out some time during Conference Blocks to meet with new day students, and that worked alright, but it’s only 30 minutes.”

Additionally, she questioned the effectiveness of dorm visits. “Dorms are also not the most diverse groups in terms of students on campus, because we’re limited to either having only boys in dorm groups or girls in dorm groups, and we’re limited by age. We can see that for some topics, it’d actually be valuable to have multiple forms talking about things,” she said.

Both Ms. Jenney and Mr. Kafoglis mentioned time as a constraint on what Peer Educators could do.

Ms. Jenney said, “In terms of what topics we’ll cover next year, we’d like to bring the whole group together and figure that out as a team, but there has been a lot of interest expressed about doing something related to mental health, depression and anxiety. There seems to be a real need for it on campus, and we may do that next year.”

Assessment Team

As The Choate News reported last winter, Assessment Team has suffered a lack of public awareness. Members have pinned the reason for this issue on a lack of interaction with the broader community.

Assessment Team adviser Ms. Judith Bender believes that the potential overlap among support groups reveals an opportunity for effective collaboration and outreach.

“There seems to be a connectedness among new groups such as CORR and with Ms. Wiseman’s work, and this is something I think we should really look at next year. There are so many newly formed support groups for students, and I think that we periodically all need to be in the same room at the same time and share what we’re doing and what we’re looking for and the goals we’re hoping to achieve, where we overlap, and where we are looking to achieve together on similar kinds of things, as opposed to this group going to this dorm and this and that. I think it’s time for us to address what a community is all about.”

“The Peer Educators can go into a dorm to educate students on a particular topic, and the Assessment Team member can go with that person to say that they are a resource. So after the conversation, the Assessment Team member can present on the resources in case someone is concerned about a friend or someone else who is struggling.”

Mr. Kafoglis also noted potential ideas to collaborate with Assessment Team. “I think there’s certainly a lot of opportunity for collaboration, and Ms. Jenney and I have talked a lot to the adviser of Assessment Team about how to collaborate for next year. I think things like open forums would be a great way to get more groups involved, not only just Peer Educators or Assessment Team,” he said.

Conclusion

Though support groups offer help at any time, it seems that many people are reluctant to utilize these resources from interviews conducted with students. Lily James ’17 said, “I think support groups get a lot of criticism because people don’t feel as if they do a lot, but I think honestly that they do a lot more than you think. Just by having these groups on campus, such as Peer Educators or Assessment Team, means that you know that if something happens that there’s a supportive community. So even if you haven’t ever gone to them or heard of anyone who has, you know that if the need arises, they are there.”

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