The Kids Are Not OK: Address the Mental Health Crisis, Andover

Earlier this year, as I walked a friend across campus through the cold darkness of the night, I promised him that he would be able to get the help he needed at the Rebecca M. Sykes Wellness Center. He had been in severe distress and I felt the situation was bigger than anything we could deal with alone, so we were going to the place where students like us are told to turn to for help. When we got to Sykes, however, my friend was told that the counselor “on call” lived too far away to be able to see him in person. Sykes, as it turned out, could not provide him with the help he needed, and a few days later, Andover asked him to leave.

This story is about the promise Andover makes to us — the promise that there is help available, that there will be someone there for you, that you are not alone. It is a story about how that promise is being broken, and how — through policy changes, greater transparency, and collaboration with the community — it can be repaired.

In a way, Andover kept its promise to my friend that he would not be alone; he certainly wasn’t— in his lack of access to mental health care at Andover, that is. Over the course of this school year, several friends struggling with depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues have told me that they have been unable to get help at Sykes because of the waitlist to regularly see a counselor. They are far from alone. According to the 2022 State of the Academy survey, almost 60 percent of Andover students say the mental health and counseling services provided by Sykes are inadequate; among students who have seen a Sykes counselor, this number jumps to 70.5 percent. In other words, the mental health care Andover currently provides is failing to meet most students’ needs.

All available data, furthermore, reveals that too many students are in desperate need of help. As The Phillipian first reported to the Andover community in September, Sykes quietly switched from weekly to biweekly counseling sessions this fall due to soaring student demand for counseling. Nationwide, the number of American high school students who say they experience “persistent feelings of hopelessness and sadness” skyrocketed from 26 to 44 percent between 2009 and 2021, according to the CDC. These feelings do not simply reflect a greater willingness to talk about mental health, as Sykes has suggested, but have tragically manifested in measurable behavior: according to the CDC, across the United States, the number of children and teenagers who visited emergency rooms for suicidal thoughts or attempts more than doubled from 2007 to 2015

The crisis is especially severe among students at schools like Andover. Multiple studies have found that rates of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse have increased sharply among students at high-pressure, “high-achieving schools” at more than two to three times the national average, according to “The Washington Post.” Perversely, due to toxic levels of stress, these students now suffer from rates of behavioral and mental health problems similar to those of children who have experienced trauma, according to the article. What this all means is simple: we are not OK. 

So far, Andover’s response to the mental health — and mental health care — crisis has been to not respond at all. In separate interviews, Amy Patel, Dean of Health and Wellness and Chief Medical Officer; Susan Esty, Dean of Students and Residential Life; and Raj Mundra, Deputy Head of School, each acknowledged that the school had no plans to hire additional counselors, and would not provide one-on-one counseling for every student who needs it. For example, in the same September article that first reported on counselor departures, Patel said, “One-on-one counseling, every week, for four years, would mean we need dozens of counselors, that’s the reality. And no school is going to have that. We’re not a therapeutic boarding school. So that’s not what we’re going to be able to provide.” Indeed, the administration’s response to soaring student demand for counseling has been characterized by a refusal to hire more counselors, and empty gestures towards alternative, and cheaper, methods of mental health care such as group workshops and Peer Listeners — as if either were an effective replacement for one-on-one counseling. In a community with 12 college counselors but only six mental health counselors (and even then, only when Sykes is fully staffed, which it has not been all year), it is deceitful for the administration to pretend that this is anything but a choice. 

Unfortunately, far from responding to it, Andover has barely even acknowledged the crisis. In “Finding Balance,” a cover story for “Andover Magazine” published on December 15, Interim Director of Psychological Services Vivian Báez described an upcoming survey of student health as “another window into assessing students’ mental health needs,” adding that “we can’t wait until a crisis”— as if the ongoing crisis was not already apparent in the fact that, according to the same article, Sykes has seen a significant increase in mental health visits since 2018. Moreover, the publication of the whitewashed article — which acts as if everything is under control merely because there is a Peer Listeners program and the administration will conduct a perfunctory survey — came only after The Phillipian broke the news that there was a waitlist for students to see a counselor, and that both newly hired Sykes counselors were departing, accelerating the already alarming rate of counselor turnover. Crucially, neither of these developments had been previously communicated to the school community. That is to say: the administration’s response to the crisis has been to engage in a conspiracy of silence and inaction.


To finally address the crisis, Andover must start working with the student community whose well-being it has for so long turned a blind eye to. Rather than refusing to tell students information as simple as whether there is a waitlist for counseling, the administration must start communicating transparently about what mental health and counseling services are available, and any changes that occur. As a step towards rebuilding trust with students, the administration should publicly release all data from the upcoming health survey, and fully explain why it has decided to move away from providing one-on-one counseling for students. Most importantly, Andover must listen to students when we say that we need help, and when we say what kind of help we need.


Then, Andover must act. First, the administration should invest more resources into mental health care. In the face of unprecedented student demand for counseling, the school should simply hire more counselors, and make a greater effort to retain them. Second, Andover must change its policies. As a start, the administration should bring back mental health “sick” days. A refusal to implement such a policy would suggest that the school cares more about protecting academic achievement (ie. preventing a few students from skipping class) than about protecting student health by letting students take time off when they most need to. As long as Andover continues breaking its promises to all the kids who cannot get help, it will be actively choosing to harm them.

When I first came to Andover, I believed in the promises of this place, in the transformative possibilities of living in a community that valued excellence, inclusion, and health. That was three years ago. In the time since, I have instead confronted a culture that often feels toxic, pressuring students to excel at the expense of their mental health. I’ve watched otherwise healthy kids struggle to stay afloat, while those dealing with emotional problems sank. In the spring of my Lower Year, I listened to my first counselor tell me they were leaving Andover. In the fall of my Upper Year, I listened to my second counselor tell me the same thing. That was when I finally realized that not all of the school’s promises would be kept, that the “transformation” that happens to kids here is sometimes a breakdown, and that the institution that is supposed to care about us does not care about this fact. 

Now, Andover has a choice. It can choose to continue standing by while students like my friend suffer alone in their rooms, or it can finally address the reality that too many students are not OK. What Andover chooses to do will depend on whether or not it cares about keeping its promises to the next kid who needs help. 

Editor’s Note: Leo Peters ’24 is a News Associate Editor for The Phillipian.