U-32 junior Nathaniel Rice has often experienced anxiety. In past years, his teachers allowed him to leave the room if he began to panic, but he didn’t have a place to go from there.
“I’d go down to the bathroom and just, like, sob,” Nathaniel recounted. “It’s a little less embarrassing [than being in class], but…someone doesn’t want to come in and be next to someone that’s losing it.”
Eventually, he sought help. “I had to ask around and say ‘if I’m feeling anxious, where do I go?’” he said, “because I obviously didn’t want to break down in the middle of class.”
Nathaniel heard about the Zen Den, a space in U-32’s Student Services office for students to take breaks and calm down. Since discovering it, he’s used it regularly.
Nathaniel isn’t the only student who struggled to find resources, nor is he the only student who could use them. Anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder, have affected more and more students in recent years, and the school is making an effort to help students feel safe.
Anxiety disorders are now the country’s most common type of mental illness, affecting roughly a third of the adolescent and adult population.
“I think we all suffer from anxiety to some degree,” Sophomore Grace Lane said. “Anxiety diagnoses are higher than they’ve ever been before.” Though she thinks we still have a long way to go, Grace also feels the increase in anxiety has also led to an increase in public understanding about it. Counselor Cairsten Keese agrees. In her nine years of teaching, she’s seen an increase in students’ openness about discussing anxiety.
Recently, the school has made efforts to be trauma-informed, training to take students’ mental health into account. Whether it’s a result of training or simply good teaching, Nathaniel finds this one-on-one communication effective. Though he felt less understood at first, he now feels supported when he checks in with his teachers.
An anonymous freshman, who we’ll call “Jane”, has also found one-on-one conversation helpful with her severe anxiety. “My TA is really understanding…” Jane said, “ We would do these daily check-ins after TA was over, to make sure I was doing ok.”
Not all teachers and students are on the same page, however. Jane felt less supported by some of her middle school teachers, and she thinks many U-32 students with anxiety may be afraid to reach out or talk to teachers.
“I’ve seen, personally, a lot more bad stories [about teachers] than good stories…” anonymous junior “Ann” said, “Forcing kids to get up in class and faint because they’re scared is not teaching, and not helping.”
“I know that there are a few teachers in the building who think anxiety is just a social construct, and I think that should change,” Grace said. “The first step to a safe environment is to understand your students.”
Some of these gaps in teacher understanding may come from simple unpreparedness, despite the school’s training. U-32 Health teacher Meg Falby said, “A teacher that used to just get a license in education is now an uncertified social worker, an uncertified guidance counselor, an uncertified facilitator between a parent and their kid.”
Aside from teachers, students also have the option of talking to school counselors like Cairsten Keese. Cairsten might have 5 or 6 meetings with a student discussing their anxiety, and, if she feels they need something more long-term, will refer to the community. She has also worked with fellow counselor Nate to run teacher workshops for managing anxiety in the classroom.
The Zen Den and its middle school equivalent, the Spark Center, can also serve as good resources. All four students interviewed for this article either found the Zen Den helpful or have heard positive things about it. However, Grace feels the lines that form to go into the Zen Den can be stressful.
Interior of the Spark Center
Students also benefit from learning about mental health. Though she herself is not mentally ill, Ann is passionate about mental health education and plans to attend a seminar about it.
“I don’t need to know what a lipid is all the time,” Ann said, “ but I do need to know what to do when my friend can’t breathe and feels like the room is crushing them.” Though Ann thinks Meg Falby does an excellent job teaching Health at U-32, she believes year-long health classes would give students a deeper understanding of mental illness.
Within the semester-long classes she has, however, Meg is an excellent resource for students.
“If you struggle with a mental health disorder, you are in the majority of humans.” Meg said. “ You are not a freak…you are not alone.”
In recent years, Meg has made an effort to be open about her own past anxiety and depression to her students. In her classes, she covers wellness tracking and mental illness symptoms, and provides an environment for discussion.
She also plans to teach mental health by organizing the event Teen Health Week, and hopes to arrange “fun Friday” callbacks where students can unwind by playing games or meditating.
Meg has even bigger dreams for the school’s stress management.
“Number one: eliminate all homework…” Meg said. “We have these kids sit in the school building from 7:30 in the morning to 2:30 in the afternoon…they have jobs, they have practices…maybe they eat dinner… and then they work.”
“How is that teaching to the whole child?” Meg asked. “How are we supporting their social health, their emotional health?”