Mental Health: How Six Girls are Shifting Conversation and Curriculum
By Lily Crowell and Amelia Killackey
On April 17th, Packer’s new Mental Health Committee held its first informal workshop, inviting students and faculty to share their experience with mental illnesses and disorders and to discuss how Packer can become more inclusive for those with diagnosed disorders in the future. With the greater world becoming more comfortable discussing mental health and accepting of those who have difficulties with it, this committee’s chief purpose in the coming years will be to catch up Packer’s curriculum and ideology to match the progress beyond our school’s walls.
The students leading the new committee—Ellie Elsesser (‘20), Noor Valvani (‘20), Pilar Bylinsky (‘20), Audrey Taplitz (‘21), Delia Barnett (‘20), and Imogen Bylinsky (‘22)—have all expressed deep concern for our community’s current silence surrounding mental health. Without these undeniably difficult conversations, the unintentional ignorance of the student body and faculty can never be checked. Seeing as so many students and teachers have diagnosed ADHD, ADD, anxiety, depression, and other disorders, the girls responsible for the committee are questioning why discussion of mental health is avoided so heavily at Packer.
The absence of healthy conversation most clearly stems from a lack of education about mental illnesses and disorders. Although a great deal of information about mental health can be shared in future workshops that the committee holds, many students feel that it should also be built into certain class curriculums.
The English program at Packer, for example, teaches texts that grapple with issues of unstable characters and mental illnesses, starting in 9th grade with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Yet, according to Delia Barnett (‘20), “We have never once had a conversation about how mental health is portrayed in literature versus how it actually plays out.” Delia went on to say: “I think that that can definitely lead to some harmful stereotypes or stigmas if the community of people who haven’t dealt with mental health issues does not know what it is actually like to go through that.”
In the tenth grade Health curriculum, similar problems and critiques are arising. It seems as though Packer students who are currently participating in the class or who have taken it in the past have grown unsatisfied with the level and quality of conversations regarding mental health. The “Happiness Unit,” designed to help students manage stress, discover what is fulfilling to them in life, and learn more about mental health issues, has come under fire for its somewhat distanced and overly positive discussion of mental disorders in the presence of those who may be suffering from them.
Nola Sloan (‘21), said that this unit “ostracizes members of the community that have had [mental health issues] and have had a different experience with it for the sake of teaching a lesson.” Nola also disagrees with teachers who approach the subject of mental health as a hypothetical rather than the reality that it is for many taking the class.
Noor, agreed, saying,“ I think that the language used in [the “Happiness Unit”] was not appropriate because they were just saying how to not be depressed or not have anxiety when that isn’t the real issue.”
It is a key distinction to make that while the curriculums of these two classes clearly have innate flaws when it comes to their discussion of mental illness, teachers have been nothing but open to this constructive criticism. In fact, the second forum, which specifically looked at mental health in Packer’s curriculum, was heavily populated by teachers from the aforementioned classes and from others.
Health teacher Bridgit Londay, said that “the health department is not only willing [to change], but is always actively assessing and updating the curriculum to stay relevant and effective.” Additionally, she feels that meeting the new expectations set forth by the committee would possibly include: “more in-depth lessons on different mental health diagnoses: anxiety, depression, PTSD, eating disorders… and more ‘trigger warnings’ when topics around these diagnoses are going to be discussed.”
From the catalytic work already accomplished by the Mental Health Committee, it’s safe to say that these leaders and their mission will not be silenced. Both students and faculty should come to voice their opinions at the next workshop (date TBD) because these girls are ready to listen and act upon what they hear.