By Sarina D. ’19
As the Friends theme song playing over the loudspeaker that served as the class bell faded into the background, we found ourselves standing before a group of twenty-something seventh graders. Some were sleepy after pasta Monday. Others fiddled with their clothing and looked down at the floor. A few whispered to each other or giggled uncomfortably.
“What is mental health?” Novak asked the group, gesturing toward a whiteboard that contained the same question. There were a few moments of silence, some exchanged glances, and then, finally, a few hands.
A few times a month, upper school students travel to the Belmont campus to teach 7th grade students about mental health as part of the Mental Health Network’s initiative to educate students on holistic wellness at a young age and encourage connections between middle and upper school students.
As we guided the students through the beginning lesson—first having them come to their own understanding of what mental health means, and then asking for examples of mental health related issues they could think of, they began to open up, eagerly sharing anything that they could think of. “Anxiety!” “Schizophrenia!”, they called out, as if they were answering trivia questions for money. They seemed surprised when we told them that we all have to take care of our mental health, and that mental health isn’t limited to mental illnesses, but instead applies to everyone. They engaged with scenarios about students who seem to be suffering from a mental health issue, giving their input on what to do. They listened as we told them why were there—all of us articulating that we had friends who suffered from mental health issues that we wished we could have supported better, and that we knew stigma and lack of awareness only exacerbated the multitude of mental illnesses and lack of mental wellbeing that we see around us.
Sophomore Novak Chernesky recognized this problem and knew that he had to do something. This summer, Novak had the opportunity to work at Safe Space (https://safespace.org/), an organization that provides resources and programs to high school students in the education of mental health. “I talked to the founders and we had this really good conversation about the stress environment in today’s high schools and about how people are struggling to ask for help or identifying when they even need it,” Novak told us. Inspired by the conversation, Novak saw an opportunity to bring positive change to our community at Crystal, where, as he told us, he saw that “students take on a lot of burden of responsibility without relying on their community.”
This would come in the form of a student network, aimed at combating stigma, spreading awareness, teaching the community how to help those they know with mental illnesses, and ask for help themselves. Though it was still summer, Novak did not want to wait to get started. He drafted a proposal, which he brought to the Dean of Students Ms. Isaacson, as well as upper and middle school counselors Ms. Lum and Ms. Smith. In his proposal, Novak identified what he perceived as the main struggles the student body at Crystal faced, and worked with the administration to ensure that all of the initiatives for the network would be professionally approved and targeted towards the Crystal community.
Starting in the Fall of 2018, the Crystal Mental Health Network was launched as a connection of students interested in working on various initiatives in both the middle school and upper school. Novak also found an ally in India Carter-Bolick ‘19, who became a student leader in the network. India cultivated her passion for supporting people with mental health issues after working with StarVista, an organization that provides counseling, crisis prevention, and other programs to people in the San Mateo area. The team started by collaborating with Ms. Lum to put up informative posters around the school illustrating what students can do when a classmate shows signs of depression and anxiety, statistics about mental illness in our society today, and lists of hotlines and organizations that can provide care to students struggling with a mental health issue. But addressing mental illness is not a problem that a student body can solve alone. The Mental Health Network also created flyers to hand out to parents during the first round of parent-teacher conferences, aimed at aiding parents and caretakers in starting conversations with kids about their mental health, especially at a time in which, as Novak put best, “grades and comments can bring up a lot of different emotions for students.”.
Perhaps the most ambitious task of the network, however, was the initiative to take upper school students to teach mental health classes at the middle school. With the assistance of middle school counselor Ms. Smith and Ms. Lum, the team has successfully already taught three different classes, and will continue to teach the same students in the different class sections throughout the months of January and February. When asked about how she thinks this particular program and the network in general have been going, Ms. Lum told us, “I can honestly say the student leaders behind the MHN are rockstars! They are so dedicated, compassionate, and hardworking. Supporting their efforts is easy. They have made it their personal mission to increase mental health awareness and reduce stigma. They have also been so inspiring to students across all grades, getting them involved in their efforts. Just this month, the MHN has taught mental health lessons in the 7th grade Wellness classes. This has created the space for more open conversations and a deeper understanding of mental health.”
But the Mental Health Network isn’t finished combating stigma and opening conversation. When asked about what initiatives the team has for the rest of the year, Novak detailed several ambitious plans for spreading awareness about mental health and giving students a platform to share their experiences. He also highlighted that one of the main objectives of the network is to not only promote mental health awareness, but to hone in on the diverse backgrounds and experiences of people who suffer from mental health issues and show the community that these illnesses do not discriminate on the basis of gender, race, sexuality, or any other identifier. However, they are experienced differently in each and every community and with each and every identity. In addition to leading a Diversity Day workshop for freshmen centered around different experiences with mental health in relation to identity, the team hopes to put together a panel of individuals who have dealt with a varied range of mental illnesses themselves, so Crystal students and faculty/staff can hear firsthand accounts of living with serious mental health problems. And their final initiative, a resource wall with tips on both handling serious mental issues and just managing everyday stress, includes coordination with licensed local therapists.
When asked what his chief objective for the network is, Novak told us, “I think the number one thing that we’re hoping for is an increase in students feeling comfortable talking about their mental health and asking for help. Even students who don’t currently struggle can see the importance of maintaining mental health, even if you don’t have a specific diagnosis. If you’re not feeling good, that’s your brain and your mental wellness. Even if you don’t think you need to see a therapist or you don’t think your issues are important, we want to be able to help everyone at the school have the resources that they may need, and make sure they can identify their own emotions.”
And the network has been successful so far, executing several initiatives in its first few months, and opening up productive discourse on campus to spread awareness and combat stigma. But Novak and the team don’t want the conversation to end along with each initiative. Rather, they hope that their programs and activities become annual occurrences, and that each year brings about new ideas and improvements to the network. “My hope is that it will grow and develop into something that is the backbone of our school,” Novak told us. “More than just a club or something that is an extracurricular, I hope that the network is a place where students learn to be conscious about mental health and provide one another with support.”
We believe that it will. It took the ambition, hard work, and leadership of an incredible student, who spearheaded the network as an underclassman, but today the network continues to expand and take on new ideas and initiatives, promoting mental health awareness and aligning with Crystal’s recent steps to ensure that our community is as inclusive and accepting as possible.
If everyone who suffers from a mental illness in our society today made up a country, their country would have the third largest population in the world. And of these hundreds of millions of people, a rising number are from the adolescent population, with nearly 20% of all adolescents showing signs of anxiety as of 2018, surpassing depression as the most common mental health issue plaguing America’s youth. Even more troubling, less than ⅕ of these adolescents seek professional help. Social stigma deeply embedded in our culture often inhibits conversation surrounding mental wellbeing, preventing suffers from seeking help from professionals and support from friends, and allowing for misconceptions to dominate the airwaves.
There is really no quick fix for alleviating the mental health crisis that prevents so many people in our world from reaching their full potential. However, with the incredible ambition and passion of students like Novak who are leading us in promoting conversation, combating stigma, and supporting one another, perhaps we can make each person in our community just a little bit happier and healthier. And that’s worth everything.