Westminster mental health improvements and pitfalls

Westminster has joined in the large movement to destigmatize mental health across the world in recent years. With assemblies, advisement lessons, and counseling spaces, Westminster has taken steps to help students. Due to the current COVID-19 pandemic, students face additional obstacles to mental health, such as dealing with isolation in quarantine. One of the most significant changes in recent years has been the expansion of Westminster’s counseling team from two people to four.

“The intentionality around mental health and just the more robust knowledge around it and having people whose entire jobs are to take care of the mental health of our community is a huge step from where we were when I was a student,” said history department chair Laura Drewicz-Ewing.

While some additions have been made to the school’s counseling resources, there are also notable subtractions since last year. For example, there are no longer mental health days built into the schedule like last year.

“I think now that it is not as bad they think we don’t need [mental health days] anymore,” said sophomore Abby Marr. “But in February and even September I think it would be very beneficial for students to just have a random Monday off. When we do have breaks, we’re still assigned homework, so maybe give us a grace period in case students cannot get to their school work.” 

While mental health days have been taken away, Westminster still consistently spreads the message of support for students regarding mental health. Advisement programs include videos on meditation and other tips for students. With large group gatherings having returned after over a year of COVID restrictions, assemblies have also returned with either class meetings or the entirety of the Upper School. Most recently, the student body gathered for an assembly about substance abuse and the addition of the Comprehensive Prevention Planning Initiative to Westminster’s community. Assemblies and advisement programs create a constant reminder of the message of destigmatizing mental health Westminster is trying to spread. 

“I doubt that any single assembly just changes a student’s entire perspective,” said Drewicz-Ewing. “I think the repetition of messaging around the significance of mental health and trying to destigmatize struggle with mental health and seeking help… and the consistency of it, to me, that’s what’s more effective and makes sense.” 

While Westminster is making steps toward better mental health support through the built-in support from grade chairs, advisors, chaplain, learning strategists, and counselors, this is sometimes not enough for some students’ situations. The student support team keeps a consistent relationship with outside resources, so students can benefit from people with more specific expertise in what they are dealing with. Along with the support team, Westminster donors are in touch with these situations and provide financial support in certain circumstances. 

I think the world, overall, provides lots of mental health challenges for students,” said head of student support Anna Moore. “Westminster, in particular, is a place of high achieving, amazingly capable students who hold themselves to high standards. I think that atmosphere can create feelings of pressure and intensity for students.”  

A major factor in the atmosphere of pressure for students at Westminster is honors and AP classes. Many Westminster students take honors or AP classes, which noticeably impacts students in their daily lives. Student counselors note in particular that students who take many AP or honors classes have a quicker triggering point for stress and anxiety, and also that they are more subject to burnout. This stress is something many students state that they have felt, whether the pressure comes from teachers, parents, the Westminster community, or even themselves. 

“Westminster’s mental health initiatives seem designed solely to help students cope with the overwhelming work environment and culture at our school,” said senior Lila Haden. “I would like to see the problem addressed at its root. They should make changes to the institution instead of band-aids.” 

In general, students have noted there are places that Westminster falls short, but there are many improvements underway. Whether it is adding to the student support team’s numbers, increasing messaging about mental health, or maintaining relationships with outside providers, Westminster has gathered its resources and strategies to help build better student wellness in the community. As room for improvement has been noticed by the students, the support team and teachers are putting in new efforts to help the Westminster community.