Navigating adolescence has never been easy—but imagine doing it during a global pandemic, under the glare of social media, in the midst of societal upheaval, and with the looming threat of catastrophic climate change.
While Rivers in many ways offers a safe haven to students, they are not immune to those stressors. Mental health concerns on campuses across the country have skyrocketed over the past 18 months. Understanding that, the school has entered into a new partnership with the world-renowned McLean Hospital in Belmont through its School Consultation Service
program, which will offer a multi-pronged approach to addressing those concerns. The program will involve staff, faculty, parents, and students as we work together to help guide the adolescents in our care through these challenging times.
Faculty and staff were introduced to the partnership between Rivers and McLean School Consultation Services at a meeting held shortly before the start of the school year. In his opening remarks, Head of School Ned Parsons thanked faculty member Nikki Bartlett P’21, ’25, ’27 and her family for “their vision, leadership, and generosity” in bringing the program to campus through The Bartlett Family Fund for Wellness. The Bartletts, he went on, were inspired by the work of Rivers faculty and students in promoting wellness and destigmatizing issues of mental health.
Bartlett then spoke briefly about how her family’s involvement grew out of a desire to give back to Rivers, especially following her daughter Schuyler ’21’s own mental health challenges and the support she received here. “It’s a gift of love and appreciation for everyone in this room, and a gift of hope,” said Bartlett.
Rivers Director of Counseling and Wellness Sarah Knortz spoke, sharing some sobering data on Rivers students and their responses to the events of the past year and a half. She said the number of students seeking mental health support in the fall of 2020 alone greatly exceeded the number who had sought such help over the entire previous year. She told the audience that the McLean School Consultation program works to “eliminate both mental-health stigma and the obstacles to effective mental health care—obstacles that can and do prevent students from equitably accessing the full Rivers experience.”
Beyond the more well-known circumstances that might contribute to mental-health challenges, said Knortz, attending a high-achieving school—such as Rivers—has recently been identified as a risk factor. But there are countervailing protective factors, such as an emphasis on values and character, a social-emotional learning curriculum, and, most of all, strong relationships between students and teachers. Fortunately, such relationships are the cornerstone of a Rivers education, and though the challenges are real, the school is well-positioned to take them on. The McLean partnership, which will provide teacher trainings, parent workshops, and student-facing services throughout the year, strengthens Rivers’s ability to address mental health challenges community-wide.
“Even if you’re not a clinician,” said Knortz, “you can provide microdoses of intervention” that can keep a concern from becoming a crisis. The new program gives teachers a wealth of tools and resources they can deploy.
Knortz then handed the program over to two practitioners from McLean, Dr. Maggie Gorraiz and Dr. Mills Smith-Millman, who joined the meeting remotely. They walked the audience through the process of understanding states of mental health and shared information on warning signs and when to be concerned about a student’s state of mind.
The psychologists went on to explain the various facets of their approach: mindfulness, validation, active listening, modeling positive mental health, and other techniques. They suggested that teachers start class with a “mindful minute,” demonstrating what that might look like. They offered up concrete approaches, such as five-finger breathing, an exercise that dials down anxiety and has a calming effect. And they walked teachers through role-playing scenarios in which they applied these strategies to “students” who were stressed out, angry, uncommunicative, sad, or overwhelmed.
Above all, the approach promoted by the Rivers Wellness & Counseling Department, along with the new McLean partnership, is a pragmatic one, aimed at putting the necessary tools and skills in the hands of all community members. In her opening remarks, Knortz acknowledged that mastering all the material and techniques might not be quick or simple. “You might feel like you get more information today than you can take in all at once,” she said, adding, “And we are confident that every person will walk away with at least one simple, concrete tool or skill that they can use in their classroom to promote positive mental health.”