Mental Health: One Semester Down, One to Go

Students and staff reflect on the state of mental health at Stuyvesant after nearly a full semester back in school.

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The abrupt transition to remote learning was a challenge for many students, and the entirety of the 2020-21 on-line school year exacerbated the issue of students’ mental well-being. Throughout the semester, the administration introduced various mental health initiatives to help ease students back to in-person learning. In spite of this, concerns surrounding mental health continue to be raised as the semester nears its conclusion.

A discussion about mental health was sparked among the student body by a Facebook post by junior Julia Williams in January 2021. Williams created the post—which garnered over 370 comments and nearly 500 reactions—to address the lack of resources provided to students to help them manage the workload remotely. “Stuyvesant expected kids to do an amount of work that was not dissimilar to what they would have been asked to do in in-person school,” Williams said. “Some kids were able to do it, but the people who were struggling a lot were not being given ways out.”

In the time since Williams’s post, the administration and counseling office have implemented various mental health programs and resources, such as partnerships with MyRobin—an organization that provides lessons led by mental health coaches on coping mechanisms and techniques to promote healthy habits—and Counseling in Schools (CIS), which provides an additional clinician in the school five days a week.

The new counseling staff hopes that their presence will provide additional support to students. For example, CIS counselor and art therapist Sapphire Chao began holding group art therapy sessions available after school this semester. “Some students have never seen their classmates until this year, so that’s why we want to have a place that’s more natural to meet other people,” Chao said. “It’s partly that we want students to relax, but on the other hand, we want students to connect and support each other.”

Alongside art therapy, Chao also holds individual sessions with students and parents, in which she listens to their major concerns and helps students understand themselves. “I do hear lots of students talking about how much stress they have from school, but on the other hand, I also have students come to me to figure out who they are, including sexual and racial identity, or it could be about their interests in the future, career, and college,” Chao said. “Some students see me because they don’t feel confident about themselves, or have challenges in being assertive, or to communicate with their family, teachers, or peers.”

Stuyvesant also added new counseling clinicians as staff. Many students feel that these additional mental health resources are a step in the right direction and encourage peers to be open-minded to utilizing them. "Reaching out to school staff about mental health can be intimidating, but having spoken to some of the new clinician staff, I’d definitely encourage more students to try reaching out to take advantage of the new resources being offered at Stuyvesant,” junior Grace Wu said. “There’s still a long way to go in terms of mental health here, but it’s nice that there's an active effort [by] staff to increase the availability of resources at school. To me, that’s signaling the issue is at least being acknowledged."

The counseling office is making it a major priority that resources at Stuyvesant are accessible to students. “Even pre-pandemic, we saw that Stuyvesant students, in general, need a mental health service brought to them,” Assistant Principal of Pupil Personnel Services Casey Pedrick said. “Instead of going to therapy outside of Stuyvesant, we have it right here in-house so that students don’t have to choose extracurriculars or studying over their mental health.”

Despite these new sources of support, students still continue to struggle with mental health. Some counselors express that more students have reached out with mental health concerns this semester, compared to past years. “Students have mentioned to me they appreciate having the convenience and availability to now speak to someone in person when they need an adult to talk to or some assurance,” guidance counselor Sandra Brandan said in an e-mail interview. “They feel relief that someone is ‘there’ and an adult is available for them.”

Anxieties about the spread of coronavirus have also resurfaced in light of rising Omicron cases. “I’ve noticed a genuine decline in my mental well-being in the past few days. I even had a teacher email me asking me if I was okay because of the way I seemed in class,” junior Zoe Parkin said. “The stress of having to worry about homework and not failing tests combined with the stress of not catching a virus is causing me to feel grim. I was not as stressed in the first months of this semester but now that we've come back from break and every day, you can just see the number of cases growing.”

However, other students express anxieties surrounding the possibility of returning to remote learning. “I’ve been able to have good grades again and engage in my classroom environment this year, and so going back has been something that was really good for me because my grades were awful last year. I’ve gotten more into my groove of doing moderately well, and going back to remote will completely erase all that progress,” Williams said.

The counseling office staff states that the prominent concerns students have communicated to them pertain to circumstances relating to COVID-19. “From concerns [such as] going back remote, loss of learning, getting sick, losing someone because of COVID, isolation because of COVID, loss of extracurricular opportunities, parents losing work, loss of friends [and] high school experience, mental health diagnosis in which COVID exacerbated them, students also worry about the world of uncertainty because of COVID,” Brandan said.

While some students have utilized the new mental health resources at Stuyvesant, others express that they primarily rely on friends and peers to effectively cope with stress. “Most of my friends have been through what I have regarding issues at school and it’s nice to receive their advice when trying to get through something tough,” junior Peter Carini said.

Along similar lines, the counseling staff hopes to foster greater normalcy associated with reaching out to Stuyvesant’s mental health resources. “It feels like it’s much more common to attend tutoring at Stuyvesant, so let's make it so that its much more common that you come and seek out a balance with your mental health by visiting your school counselor or our social workers or going to Sapphire’s art therapy group session[s] because those [are] not a commitment,” Pedrick said. “It’s nothing in that formal sense that some of us think therapy is.”

In spite of the various initiatives Stuyvesant has implemented to address students’ well-being, many students say that these resources failed to address the student body’s main stressors, including heavy workloads and a grade-orientated culture at Stuyvesant. “I talked to my guidance counselor to complain about [one of] my [teachers], and while [my counselor acknowledged] my concerns, she instead suggested art therapy, which wouldn’t be helpful for my problems,” sophomore Amrisha Roy said. “Drawing isn’t going to take away the fact that I'm failing my math tests—it just takes away time that I could be studying.”

Students agree that the competitive culture of Stuyvesant is the reason why the instability of students’ mental health is so difficult to solve. “Mental health itself is a kind of competition. If you come off as depressed, people might think they can handle things better than you, or at least that’s how it comes off when people don’t show they’re struggling,” Roy said.

Williams echoes this sentiment, adding how students and administration reinforce the competitive culture at Stuyvesant. “At Stuyvesant, it becomes this total treasury of getting good grades and taking on APs and extracurriculars for the sake of college and for the sake of fulfilling the reputation of being a Stuyvesant student,” Williams said. “Our school falls really flat with teaching kids how to learn and how to engage with the topics they learn in class. Until the emphasis switches away from grades and more into finding things that you’re interested in, and this culture [of] super high grades, Ivy League colleges, and loading on as many extracurriculars as possible. Until that culture is shifted, there isn’t going to be any progress with the school no matter how many seminars on stress management they provide for us to go to.”

Pedrick emphasizes the importance of promoting community and mutual empathy to improve mental health at Stuyvesant. “The majority of [students] are happier to be back in school, to be able to have a sense of routine, to be able to interact with friends and [extracurriculars], but of course, a lot of us put on a brave face and are not really showing that we are struggling on the inside maybe to our friends or to our teachers,” Pedrick said. “One of the things we can do as a Stuy community, from our staff to our parents to our students, is to remember to give each other grace in this time and understand that everyone’s going through something on some level, whether you can see it or not.”

As the second semester approaches, students and staff alike echo this sentiment and hope to see addressing mental health remain a priority at Stuyvesant. “Personally, my mental health has seen a lot of ups and downs throughout the semester, but what’s really helped is keeping my well-being in mind even when I’m struggling and knowing when to turn to friends, teachers, or even the guidance office,” Wu said. “I’m not sure what next semester will look like, but I’m glad mental health is becoming a continuous conversation here at [Stuyvesant].”