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December 16, 2019

By Kevin Ko-wen Chen, Communications Manager

It’s Thursday morning, and the entire Fieldston Upper School community is gathered in the auditorium to hear about the week’s assembly topic: mental health. Rather than bring in a medical professional to discuss the issue from a clinical perspective, the student organizers of the assembly have asked their peers to share their own experiences. Student after student walks onto the auditorium stage to speak about anxiety, PTSD, or substance abuse. One speaker talks about growing up with a father who suffered from bipolar disorder and alcoholism, and later learning to cope with his death.

It’s clear the students in the audience are moved by their classmates’ honesty and bravery. They listen attentively, clap enthusiastically, and — as the speakers return to their seats — exchange hugs and words of affirmation liberally. Whooping and cheering fill the auditorium with outpourings of support.

There are difficult moments, to be sure, but there are plenty of lighthearted moments as well — like when one student explains that he named his depression “Clyde” as a way to distance himself from it. He wraps up by saying, “Now I’m able to separate myself from my depression and see it for what it is — an illness, not who I am.”

That statement so succinctly captures what the assembly hopes to accomplish — to present mental illness not as a character flaw to keep in the dark, but as a common condition that can benefit from the help of professionals, loved ones, and a supportive school community.

As students file out of the auditorium, the leaders of the Fieldston Upper School Mental Health Club — Gillian F. ’20, Hallie M. ’20, and Sophie D. ’22 — convene to discuss the assembly they’ve just organized. They’re deservedly happy with how it went; Hallie believes many of her peers drew strength from “seeing people just getting up there, being able to relate to them, and saying, ‘Oh, that is a friend I have, and they’re doing this. Why can’t I?’”

In 2017, a student who lost a parent to suicide launched the Mental Health Club at ECFS. Gillian, Hallie, and Sophie — who all have family members who have experienced mental illness — were drawn to the club’s mission to educate and cultivate empathy. The club currently operates under the supervision of Jessica Lassman, Fieldston Upper School Psychologist, and KC Cohen ’92, who joined ECFS in 2018 as Director of Health and Wellness for Fieldston Middle and Upper School. It has been tremendously well-received, growing from a membership of around eight — when Gillian’s older brother started a predecessor to the Mental Health Club called Mind Matters — to a current membership of around 70.

Gillian, Hallie, and Sophie are eager to correct the misconception that the Mental Health Club operates as a group therapy provider. Though the club offers a place for students to share their experiences, its goals are much broader. “Having the club as a space where people can talk is great, but we’ve been trying to work on more specific things this year,” says Sophie. These initiatives include placing informational posters around the school, advocating for faculty training, and aggregating feedback from the student body that the club leaders can convey to Cohen and Lassman, who help guide administrative changes.

Educating students and faculty is a top priority. Part of the work the Mental Health Club performs is to normalize mental illness and remove the stigma that surrounds it. Sophie likes to remind others that mental illness is often treatable, through means like counseling or medication. “In my mind, I think of it as something as simple as when you have a stomachache, you go to the nurse.”

At the same time, the student leaders recognize that the increase in conversation about mental health issues has led some classmates to use the language of mental illness indiscriminately. Hallie wants to remind her peers to take psychiatric disorders seriously. “A lot of speakers gave examples of people saying, ‘I’m so depressed right now, I’m going to have a panic attack, I’m going to kill myself,’” she says. “Things like that clearly are very problematic, and in a setting like this, where the person sitting next to you could be going through that — it’s not okay.”

Equipping students and teachers with the knowledge and resources to help those working through mental health issues is another primary goal of the club. ”Mental illness sometimes can be quite scary,” says Gillian, “so how do you deal with a friend when you don’t feel like they’re fully in a lucid state?” The student leaders are working to ensure that students in any class at ECFS experience consistent, positive support when managing their psychological well-being with their coursework. And already, the Mental Health Club has seen tangible results; this fall, the professional development day for Fieldston Upper School faculty and staff featured a three-and-a-half-hour session led by Cohen on fostering students’ sense of belonging, joy, and wellness.

In my mind, I think of it as something as simple as when you have a stomachache, you go to the nurse.

Gillian, Hallie, and Sophie hope their classmates take away from the morning’s assembly an increased awareness of, and compassion for, mental illness. “I think there’s this very stock image idea of someone crying at home or just getting very nervous,” says Sophie. “I hope that people understand that these are things people go through while playing sports, while going to school, while maintaining friendships.”

And, just as importantly, the student leaders hope to remind their peers that support structures both in and outside of school already exist and are constantly improving.

“I feel like it’s a real commitment that ECFS has to our students, that they’re working on daily. This is not something they’re brushing over,” says Gillian. “I’m so proud to go to this school.”