Addressing Mental Health in High School

In January of 2013, I met a man named Harris Schwartzberg who was asked to speak on the mental health panel at Clinton Foundation's Health Matters conference in Palm Springs. I was the content lead for the event, which meant I supported and helped guide/manage panelists to share their story, passion and commitments that would collectively result in promoting the health and well-being of hundreds of thousands of Americans. Panels included topics around Living Healthy, Health Transformation and Mental Health. Harris was asked to be on the mental health panel along with Senator Chris Murphy from Connecticut, Ray Kelly Commissioner of NYPD, among others.

Supporters of the EVEN Program, HS staff, including Principal Bosari (second from left) and Harris and Nicole Schwartzberg on either side of me.

Supporters of the EVEN Program, HS staff, including Principal Bosari (second from left) and Harris and Nicole Schwartzberg on either side of me.

Harris' family lost his brother to bipolar disorder. Creating awareness, decreasing the stigma and encouraging people to seek help for depression, mental health and suicide became a Schwartzberg family commitment. Harris and I quickly became colleagues and friends and have spent a couple years discussing how we might work together to address his family's goals around mental health awareness. He established the EVEN Program, in partnership with University of Michigan Depression Center and has been piloting the program at Byram Hills High School (BHHS) in Armonk NY. He has been eager to include me in the programming and work they have been doing as a supporter, partner and advocate.

I arrived in Westchester, NY this past Wednesday evening in time to attend a dinner at Tamarack Golf Club with a 9-person team from University of Michigan (helping implement and evaluate the EVEN Program), the Schwartzberg family, a couple high school staff, panelists and speakers participating in the next day's events. I felt honored and fortunate to be included in a team bringing awareness to a school community around mental health. The High School's principal, Chris Borsari should be commended and even recognized by ASCDs Whole Child Initiative for his support and dedication to mental health, including stress, sleep, anxiety, depression and suicide within his school community.

Will Heininger and and Hakeem Rahim sharing their stories to the senior class at BHHS.

Will Heininger and and Hakeem Rahim sharing their stories to the senior class at BHHS.

The following day, BHHS held a Wellness Day focused on these issues. Students had an opportunity to hear from national speakers telling their story and attend breakout sessions which students had an opportunity to select on their own. Sessions included topics on asking for help, anxiety, addressing stress, yoga, and meditation to name a few. It was apparent to me the night prior, that taking the students away from 2-3 hours of 'sit and get' was something Principal Bosari wasn't super comfortable with. Even though he is 100% on board, I could tell the pressures nationally, to focus on test scores, graduation rates and attendance made him uneasy to take time away from academic instruction. It saddens me that school leaders have to continuously make the case that programs like the EVEN Program actually do support these 3 accountability measures. Without being able to re-frame and advocate through the lens of those 3 measures, administrators feel pressure to eliminate programs, policies and practices that aren't directly related to core academics.

That’s when I began to heal.
— Will Heininger, Mental Health Advocate and former University of Michigan football player sharing his experience after he asked for support from the Athletic Counselor

Hakeem Rahim from the National Alliance on Mental Illness and Will Heininger a former football player at the University of Michigan shared their stories around the struggles and successes living with bi-polar and depression, respectively. You couldn't hear a pin drop in the auditorium filled with a few hundred seniors. Their stories were compelling, emotional and inspirational.

I attended a breakout session held by Byram Hills HS teacher Mrs. Jones. I was amazed how well she created a safe environment for her students to discuss stress and healthy ways to cope. I got chills when her two upper class mentors shared their cell phones on the board for all students in the class to use if they ever needed support. 

I’m here for you, in addition to teaching you how to conjugate your verbs.
— Mrs. Jones, teacher at Byram Hills HS, reiterating that teachers are more than educators. They are mentors and there to support their student's well-being so they can thrive.

The evening program was the second annual The Role of Family in Addressing Mental Health Needs event at the school. A video welcome by Glenn Close encouraged us all to consider mental health in a way we consider physical health. "We don't blame someone for cancer, so why do we blame them for depression?"  (Ms. Close wanted to attend in person, but is currently performing on Broadway). I encourage you to check out her video and organization, Bring Change2MindAhmad Rashad, former NFL player moderated a panel with Kate Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Koschmann tom the UofM Depression Center, Ginny Neuckranz, founder of Erika's Lighthouse, Carolyn Lanfredi, Byram Hills school psychologist, Harris Schwartzberg, parent and advocate and Will Heininger, mentioned previously. Questions from the audience ranged from clinical treatment strategies, to medication to decreasing the stigma. The program closed with high school students singing Stand By Me.

Stress happens to everyone. What matters most is how you respond.
— Mrs. Jones, teacher at Byram Hills HS

I reflected how if every high school principal was as bold at Chris Bosari to address stigma of mental health, increase awareness and encourage students to seek help as he has, our school communities would be healthier, happier and able to achieve to their full potential.