October 31, 2019
by Jenn Milam, Ph.D., Middle School director
Editor’s Note: On the first Thursday of each month, you will find a guest Head’s Message here from one of MPA’s division directors. We hope you enjoy reading their thoughts and reflections about life at MPA.
It seems everywhere we turn these days, there is a new story about mental illness, anxiety, and depression alongside the challenges of maintaining psychologically healthy children in a world that seems to be moving so quickly hardly any of us can keep up. Some of the stories bring horrific tragedy to our television screens and images that almost none of us can bear. And if you look a little more closely, there are more and more stories that are seeking to illuminate and explore the often unseen, silent struggle of young people dealing with anxiety, depression, disconnection, and loneliness. In a special issue of Time magazine, “Mental Health: A New Understanding,” researchers, doctors, and sociologists take various perspectives on mental health, its historical roots in disease classification and treatment, and some of the more modern contributing factors, including but not limited to, technology, social pressure, and family life. In addition to the sociocultural milieu and newsworthy stories I read about mental health and anxiety, I work alongside young people and see the stress, the anxiety and depression, the mounting weight of their worries being carried from class to class, role to role, activity to activity.
While we are getting better at talking about mental illness and the need to attend to our emotional wellness, there remain risk factors that lend themselves to increased vulnerabilities for us and for our children. In a recent Washington Post article, “Students in high-achieving schools are now named an ‘at-risk’ group, study says,” the author shares that research has added youths in “high-achieving schools” to their list of “at-risk” populations alongside those experiencing economic insecurity, families impacted by crime, and childhood traumas. While the stress is markedly different in each situation, the impact of chronic levels of stress and pressure can have similar outcomes in the development of anxiety and depression.
As an administrator at MPA, I am proud of our “high-performing” distinction. And, like you, I am even more proud of our (and my!) very bright, well-rounded, and extremely driven young people with whom I share the hallways each day. Like you, it is part of the reason I chose MPA as a second home for my children. I am encouraged by our future, and that of our world, because I live and work in this environment. I would be remiss, though, in not sharing that the article did require me to pause and reflect on my role as parent and school leader. What are we doing to support students in their quest to be their best selves? How is our “high-performing” school teaching young people to balance their school and extra-curricular lives? How can we nurture a strong sense of self that stands up to intense pressures to compete, out-do, and win in our society?
At MPA, our focus on whole-child education for their whole-life, coupled with explicit and purposeful teaching about the importance of personal character, goodness, and self-acceptance is, in my opinion, a tremendous first step in achieving the balance required to offset the intensity of pressures noted in the literature. More, we work daily—sometimes hourly—to give language to feelings and emotions, especially at key developmental ages, and strategies to work through anxieties, insecurities, frustrations, and failures. This is empowering for young people as they can then identify their feelings and become their own best advocates. I encourage parents to talk to their children about grades in a formative, supportive, and reflective way—not in a way that defines who they are as a person or even future student. Learning is a journey. It is a journey that asks students to reflect on their effort, their interest, and their investment in their academic studies. While we may expect an “A” as an indication of achievement, a well-earned “B” can be an outstanding accomplishment to celebrate (my graduate statistics class proved that for me)! In either case, the grade itself matters less than the person doing the work—the real, material, challenging work of being a student, every day, for eight or more hours, followed by all the “extras” that come into their evenings. For me, the article insists that our attention be shifted toward deep reflection—as parents and educators—about how we are teaching, loving, and nurturing balanced and capable young people who know when they need a break, can make healthy choices about activities and commitments, and understand that they are not the sum of their achievements or measured by their GPA.
I am proud to work in a school that takes the conversation about mental and emotional wellness seriously and remains committed to continuing education and learning. We have school counselors and psychologists in our midst who help us to understand and hold central the well-being—social, emotional, mental, and psychological—of all students and adults in our community. I am especially pleased to invite you to be a part of this conversation—to learn, to grow, to reflect, and find a network of other adults doing the same. I hope you’ll attend one of two screenings of the documentary “Angst: Raising Awareness Around Anxiety.” These special events, sponsored by our Parents Association, will be next week.
On Wednesday, November 6, the screening will begin at 6:30 PM in the Nicholson Center. Immediately following the film, we will have a Kay Schwebach, YSB youth and family therapist, as well as our own school psychologist, Dr. Jules Nolan, join us for a panel discussion and Q&A opportunity. Parents and families are welcome to bring their children ages 10+ to begin a family conversation, if they feel that is appropriate.
On Friday morning, our regularly scheduled Parent Education session, will begin at 8 AM in the Recital Hall for another screening and discussion following the film. This morning event is for parents only.
Please note that guests are welcome to attend, and no RSVP is required for either screening. All that is asked is an open mind and an open heart.
- Washington Post, “Students in high-achieving schools are now named an ‘at-risk’ group, study says.” By Jennifer Breheny Wallace, 9/26/2019
- Time Magazine, “Mental Health: A New Understanding” (Full Issue) 10/12/2018