How are you?

Dec 18, 2019 | Features

T he levity is excruciating.

On the board, a two-panel comic shows a harried high-schooler walking down a hallway filled with other students. The first panel reads “what a normal person thinks,” and is filled with classical high-school preoccupations; in the second, which claims to depict “what an anxious person thinks,” the figure is nigh-overwhelmed by thought bubbles filled with potential worries: “What do they think of my clothes? My hair? Am I going to get to class on time?”

The class begins a lively discussion about how to support hypothetical friends struggling with anxiety as, in the back of the classroom, Anne* ’21—who lives with general anxiety disorder—avoids eye contact and pushes herself further into the wall. To her, the comics are indicative of a larger problem: the “trivial- ization” of the fears anxiety can produce and a lack of candid discussions around mental illness as a whole. 

“I think our goal is to be as accepting and encouraging as possible,” said Jane,* who has also been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. “But I think that trickles down in different amounts to different people.”

She’s found discussing her anxiety with classmates to be overall positive, though peers will some- times “walk on eggshells” after hearing about her experience. Eventually, however, people settle back into the routine—these discussions and their topics are “normal” at Nueva.

11th Grade Dean Jamie B. also sees the community as far more willing to have honest conversations around mental health than other communities he’s familiar with.

“Nueva is a place where you get far more diverse answers to the question ‘How are you?’ than my last school. People are more willing [to engage honestly],” Jamie said.

I think that [increased openness about mental health is] part of SEL education. Not that you want to think of your friends’ conversations as open session, but it bleeds into it

Jamie B.

11th Grade Dean

That openness, however, doesn’t always translate to discussions around mental illness. Though Jane doesn’t see Nueva as “romanticizing” or “rejecting” mental illness, she does think that the community tends to view mental health struggles as “exotic” and misunderstand them beneath the surface level “niceness.”

Miseducation can surface in the form of insensitive commentary or inaccuracies in the ways mental health and illness are discussed. Even offhand comments may have real impacts on those struggling with their mental wellbeing and indicate a deeper issue with the community’s views on the seriousness of mental health, according to peer consultant Ana I. ’21.

“I think there is a culture around fatalistic humor and people making jokes about it. I know it’s not malicious, but I think it’s something that’s enabling for people who are actually struggling with those things,” Ana said. 

“It’s enabling to let people think that it’s normal. I think people don’t take [mental illness] seriously.”

This lack of perceived significance was found to be particularly acute in the case of anxiety disorders by Project 80, a student group that creates podcasts about the science behind controversial topics. Luke D., the group’s faculty advisor, believes that anxiety disorders aren’t seen as “being as valid as other disorders.” 

The lack of validity attributed to anxiety disorders may have a particular impact at Nueva. English teacher and advisor Alexa H. believes that Nueva’s “pace” is “really problematic” as it feeds into increased anxiety amongst students and faculty alike.

“There isn’t time in the day to take a deep breath and catch up,” Alexa said. “That kind of spinning-wheel feel to the place lends itself to a lot of anxiety.”

Anxiety as a neurological problem isn’t even considered in people’s minds.

Luke D.

Biology Teacher

Additionally, the array of opportunities offered has both significant benefits and daunting downsides when it comes to students’ abilities to pursue passions while maintaining their mental health.

“The beauty of Nueva is that students can go as deep as they want into things, and teachers are always trying to give kids opportunities, but with that comes kids knowing that [they can] always be doing something more,” Adrienne P. ’22 said. “So if I’m not taking advantage of the resources and opportunities I have, I’m wondering: am I just not working hard enough? Or am I trying to take care of myself?”

In addressing these anxieties, many believe it’s necessary to analyze and confront impacts of the broader culture of Silicon Valley and the United States. Science of Mind (SOM) teacher Olivia B. is a strong proponent of “bringing in the world around us” to conversations about mental health.

12th Grade Dean and history teacher Brian C. also believes that we must dispel the idea that Nueva exists in a closed “bubble,” immune to external influences.

“I think that our mental health crisis on campus is proof that it’s a very porous bubble, that our culture actually does permeate this place,” Brian said. “We’re part of this culture, but we think we’re in a bubble. We don’t realize that the solutions are culture-deep, not just Nueva-deep.”

As the impact of cultural forces is recognized, efforts can be made to minimize the pressure that external influences place on students. However, as school counselor Christine T. has observed, countering significant cultural bias is difficult.

“We’re trying to say that seeking help is important and that taking care of your mind is important,” Christine said.  “We’re fighting a trend. It’s a pretty steep hill that we’re trying to climb.”

The epidemics of depression and anxiety in young people are not an accident; mental health struggles do not exist within a vacuum,” Barber said. “We need to be having mental health conversations at the intersection of social and environmental justice

Olivia Barber

Science of Mind Teacher

Despite the enormity of the situation, Brian has hope that the Nueva community can eventually turn the tide.

“[Solving the broader cultural issues] is like turning the Titanic—it takes a while and we forget we’re actually quite nimble,” Brian said. “We are a community of people who care about wellness and care about each other and can make changes.”

Brian also acknowledges that the “bias towards individualism,” which he sees as particularly prevalent in gifted populations, can lead to division and prevent the community from uniting to find solutions to shared problems.

Olivia, too, believes it is crucial to focus on community-wide solutions and acknowledge the commonalities between individual experiences.

“Mental health treatments should not be solely individual,” Olivia said. “I think something that often compounds mental health issues, especially for young gifted people, is this feeling that ‘oh gosh, I’m the only person experiencing this and there must be something deeply wrong with me.’”

For Alexa, depression—with a “dash” of anxiety—is the most common struggle she sees in her student check-ins, mostly spawning from perfectionism and self-doubt, which she says may be more prevalent in gifted students.

Dean of Student Life Hillary F. agrees that giftedness can often exacerbate mental health concerns.

“I know as a gifted person working with gifted people that we think a lot, and sometimes we can’t turn off our thinking and we go really deep and really dark,” Hillary said. “It’s just a part of us as individuals that we need to work with consistently.”

The limits of confidentiality operate differently within the school setting, so I think that can deter someone from seeking counseling at school.

Christine T.

School Counselor

In determining how students are supported, Brian believes that specifically addressing the link between giftedness and the need for support in the social-emotional realm is crucial.

“I’ve had a lot of success from recommending therapy to students and my friends, because this gifted thing, by definition, it’s got this component, which means not that you’re flawed but that you need some extra support in this,” Brian said.

Mental health support is available to students at Nueva through a combination of formal systems, such as SOM classes, on-site counselors, and peer consulting, and informal ones, like student-student and student-teacher relationships. 

The formal system, according to SOM teacher and former school counselor Sean S., can be broken down into two main parts: the “proactive” piece of the system, SOM, which aims to educate all students about mental health and wellness through once-a-week classes, and the “reactive” aspect, which is the counseling team.

The proactive, universal nature of SOM, however, can lead to students struggling with mental illness feeling as though the personal aspects of their experiences are removed from the discussion altogether.

“It feels like a lot of the mental health curriculum is geared towards what to do if you hear your friend talking about suicidal ideation,” Jane said. She sees the class as directed towards students without mental health issues, with the goal being to give the student body “herd immunity” as opposed to providing targeted support.

Olivia acknowledges that this, but also sees the focus on the impersonal, externalized side of mental health struggles as somewhat necessary given the structure and mandatory nature of the class.

The epidemics of depression and anxiety in young people are not an accident; mental health struggles do not exist within a vacuum,” Barber said. “We need to be having mental health conversations at the intersection of social and environmental justice

Olivia B.

Science of Mind Teacher

“It’s a weird dance of how to create more safety, space, and protocol around opportunities to candidly discuss mental health,” said Olivia, who believes that effective discussion around mental illness has to start with self-selecting groups due to the importance of buy-in. “You can’t force people to understand or see things through specific perspectives.”

In terms of more specific care, there are several avenues through which a student struggling with their mental health may receive support.

Counselors are available to speak with students throughout the week—this year, for the first time, there is a counselor on site five days a week during school hours—and are able to provide support on a regular or drop-in basis for a wide array of concerns, from general social or academic stress to acute struggles with anxiety or depression.

Nonetheless, some students encounter various roadblocks when it comes to seeking help from the school counseling team.

“Sometimes confidentiality is a concern because, even though we’re licensed mental health professionals and there are a lot of protections around confidentiality, we are functioning within the context of the school,” Christine said.

Jane agrees that concern around losing control of one’s information—and decisions—can often prevent students from seeking help from the counseling office.

“I think there’s this perception that counseling is not helpful and that the counselors are going to take some power, some autonomy away from me as a student to choose what I want to do, that I won’t get to choose how I present myself to my teachers to my friends,” Jane said.

For others, the roadblock is more their own discomfort than concerns around confidentiality or the actions of the counselor after the discussion.

“When I’m hesitant to seek those sorts of support, I think that the problem is insecurity around bringing it to a higher role or outside of an intimate setting; it feels like I’m making it something more serious,” Peer Consultant Aliya G. ’21 said.

If it’s a topic that you feel particularly uncomfortable talking about, that can definitely be a setback in terms of seeking help.

Aliya G. '21

Christine sees students struggling with a similar block when it comes to referring their friends to counseling.

“I think sometimes the feeling of betrayal is something that people worry about,” she said. “There’s a shame, an idea that seeking help is not acceptable—that it somehow makes them weak.”

For those uncomfortable with seeking help from counselors, there are other ways that support can manifest.

During weekly wellness meetings, teachers raise and discuss concerns about or celebrate successes of their students. The goal of these meetings is for teachers to work with one another to find patterns in students’ academic or personal performance and then use that information to address the concerns that are mentioned. Meetings conclude with action items, which could be helping the student seek support from the counseling team or planning an advisor check-in. Twice a year, teachers check-in to confirm that every student has a strong relationship with at least one faculty member, thereby ensuring that a support system is in place should it become necessary.

In addition to providing individualized support, many teachers build mental health awareness into their classes.

In the template for Jamie’s Fall Production course, he includes a rubric item about mind-body balance and how students are “maintaining happiness and sanity.”

Brian believes that academic engagement can be beneficial when it comes to helping students who may be facing mental health challenges.

Luke, who teaches Neuroscience of Addiction, believes that the classroom is a “crucial” space for building empathy and helping students increase their “comfortability” with discussing controversial, stigmatized topics.

Just the ability to pour yourself into something and find meaningful work and things that engage you…I can’t imagine a better solution for someone suffering from loneliness and isolation and depression

Brian C.

12th Grade Dean

“There are a lot of people who suggest that students can’t have that conversation, there’s a lot of fear about pathologizing certain things,” Luke said. “As long as we teach students how to approach things with curiosity and non-judgment, students should be able to ask any question, no matter how controversial.”

Brian also believes that solutions must start in the classroom.

“It’s a place where we can be authentic,” Brian said. “It’s so artificial that it actually is magical. It’s so ritualistic, so ritualized, so man-made that I think it’s the only place that we can really start addressing these things intersectionally.”