New Beginnings

After reading The Phillipian Commentary Section’s spread last week on mental illness at Andover, I was struck by the lack of voices from students new to Andover. Although the transition renders them highly susceptible to mental illness, new students are in a unique position in that they have not been exposed to the prevalent stigmas about mental health here. They are, therefore, more likely to be receptive to new mental wellness initiatives, something that the school should take advantage of. New students, in particular, need to be educated about exactly what mental illness is before they are exposed to dangerous stereotypes and stigmas associated with it. After all, depression and anxiety are the result of neurochemical imbalances, not simply laziness or pessimism. According to The Phillipian’s 2014 “State of the Academy” survey, only 39 percent of students have ever visited a Graham House counselor during their time at Andover. This avoidance is attributable to the commonly held view that soliciting help, academic or otherwise, is a sign of deficiency or inability. In the 2013 “State of the Academy” survey, more than 75 percent of students said that there is “a social stigma associated with Graham House.” The student body as a whole should be trained to recognize the causes and symptoms of the more common mental illnesses on this campus, such as anxiety disorders, depression and eating disorders, as well as what protocol to follow if they recognize such symptoms in themselves or in their peers. Although faculty, prefects and proctors already receive such training, the collective Andover community clearly needs to be more vigilant. Information about awareness and resources, among other topics on mental wellness, could be presented and discussed during information sessions and seminars that would be held during all-school programs such as All-School Meeting (ASM) and Wellness Week. Another key opportunity is, of course, during Orientation, when all new students are together and already following a schedule of meetings and presentations. While the school already works hard to distribute such information, students would benefit from greater specificity. For example, students should be trained to recognize the presence of unhealthy behaviors in themselves and other students. When does skipping dinner a few nights in a row actually signify an eating disorder? To what extent does repeatedly oversleeping correlate with depression? These are the kinds of questions that students need to be able to answer confidently so that they can be attentive to the help that themselves and their peers may need. At Wednesday’s ASM, Head of School John Palfrey said that even he had been to see a therapist many times, which no doubt helped ease some of the stigma about mental illness on campus. After all, if the Head of School makes use of mental health resources, it is certainly not something for students to avoid, much less be ashamed of. Still, we have a long way to go. It is terrible to imagine that if an individual feels that his or her mental or emotional health may be in danger, he or she would not seek help simply because of a lack of knowledge or concern about stigmas. It is my hope that, as time progresses, this does not remain Andover’s norm.