Like most people, students hear about the importance of eating well, getting enough rest, hydrating, exercising—even if you aren’t doing a particularly good job of any of these. When it comes to our physical health, you might call proactive maintenance a no-brainer. Yet for our mental health, it’s far more common that people take steps to care for themselves only once they have reached a crisis point. And while there are some positive indicators of a decline in the stigmatization of mental health dialogue, we are also living through a dramatically pronounced decline in mental health nationally.
From this context, the GDS High School Student Mental Health Collaborative (SMHC) developed and launched GDS’s first Mental Health Teach-In Day held on January 6, 2022. The initiative, HS counselor Gaby Grebski explained, arose from the student group “seeking ways to bring more mental health awareness and education to our community, especially given COVID and everything we’ve all been going through these past two years.” Gaby acknowledged receiving feedback from students over the course of the pandemic that the School could be doing more to address mental health, in addition to efforts to provide individual support, workshops, class lessons, and events for several community constituencies.
The student leaders were committed to a full-day event held on a school day, like the successful Social Justice Teach-In Days. Seniors Sophie Zinn and Max Grosman served as two of the more than two dozen student leaders who helped to plan and facilitate the day. They explained that the SMHC wanted an event that not only addressed a variety of mental health topics but did so in an inclusive and safe way. They wanted their peers to feel comfortable enough to engage—and yet still be challenged to rethink their own relationship with mental health.
“It can be easy to avoid something when you can say, ‘It makes me uncomfortable to talk about that.’” Sophie said. “We didn't want people using discomfort as an excuse to turn away from the conversation altogether. We didn’t want them to turn away from a more complex conversation.”
Keynote speaker Ross Szabo’s opening talk received positive reviews, particularly for the way he laid a foundational understanding of mental health. “One of the biggest challenges we have is that when most people hear the words mental health, they immediately think of someone who has a problem or a diagnosis,” he said. “The actual definition of mental health is not having a problem [but] how you address challenges in your life…[It’s] not something you do just when something is wrong. Mental health has to be something you foster, grow, and wire in your brain from this time forward, much like your physical health."
With the guidance of faculty advisors and other adults supporting the initiative, student leaders were able to “walk the walk” in looking after their own wellbeing even as they facilitated the day they had designed. “We knew the day would be impactful for students but also recognized that parts could be triggering,” Sophie said. They designed the structure to allow for rich dialogue in reasonably small non-intimidating groups, as well as space for intense focus followed by reflection, breakout sessions, and time to debrief with a faculty or peer facilitator. “We wanted to be sure we didn’t ‘dump on the students and move on.’” The student facilitators, too, made sure to protect space for themselves to reflect and process, even while guiding guest speakers and participating in sessions.
The mental health collaborative was also intentional about developing a mix of activity types throughout the day, including hands-on opportunities, skills-based sessions, discussion-based gatherings, and keynote speakers. Above all, however, they emphasized the importance of an intersectional approach to mental health across a broad range of topics, understanding the impact that multiple, intersecting layers of historical marginalization might have on health and wellbeing.
Max said, “The most important things to focus on were intersectionality as a part of mental health and how certain identities can contribute to negative changes in [a person’s] mental health. We also made sure that we incorporated sessions on masculinity, gender, race, [media, and relationships], and not just workshops that might be expected, such as ones focusing on anxiety and stress.” He explained the need for the workshops offered to reflect diverse topics relevant to GDS teens and ensure that they align with GDS values.
Adults supporting the Mental Health Collaborative, including counselors, teachers, and wellness staff members Gaby Grebski, Gabrielle Holder, Caitlin Hutcheon, Bobby Asher, Michelle McKeever, Ricardo Carmona, and Quinn Killy, among others, intentionally put the students “at the center of it all,” Max and Sophie noted. The students also shared their gratitude for the many late hours of administrative work that adults put in “so that the students could delve into the more exciting aspects of the day.”
You can browse the list of workshops and the schedule from the day on the Mental Health Teach-In website. (Only three sessions did not run due to last-minute COVID-related shifts).