With headlines reporting historically high rates of anxiety and depression among today’s teenagers, St. Andrew’s-Sewanee School, an Episcopal boarding and day school in Sewanee, Tenn., takes the issue of student mental health very seriously. In addition to a Dean of Students, chaplain, residential life coordinator, fulltime counselor, fulltime nurse, faculty advisors, and house parents to serve the school’s 240 students, the school is using its community and advisory time to discuss social and emotional well-being and establishing new protocols to address issues like vaping and bullying.
The school’s 6th -12th graders recently completed a survey asking a host of questions that experts consider to be mental health indicators. Eighty percent of the students agreed with the statement “I feel like I belong at SAS.” Ninety-nine percent of students agreed with the statement “I feel supported by at least one friend at SAS.” Ninety-seven percent indicated that “There is at least one adult at SAS who genuinely cares about my well-being.”
According to Interim Dean of Students Geoffrey Smith, “In all of our admission materials, we tell students ‘You belong here.’ It’s a feeling that prospective students experience the minute they walk onto campus. This is important to us, not just because it is an indication of our Southern hospitality and Episcopal commitment to inclusion, but because studies show that people who feel more connected to others have lower rates of anxiety and depression, are more trusting and cooperative, and have higher self-esteem.”
Another issue that is garnering headlines these days is school safety. More than one-quarter of students in the U.S. report being bullied. In 2018, 35% of parents feared for their child’s safety at school. The picture looks quite different at SAS with 82% of students indicating that they feel safe and protected at school.
All of the survey data at SAS is not good news. Although the school strives to provide students with “challenge, balance, and joy,” balance can sometimes be elusive. The school is working to address this issue by instituting more ‘No Homework’ nights, providing recess for students in grades 6-8, and offering yoga and mindfulness classes on campus.
“Balance is the greatest difficulty for all of us, children and adults,” says Smith. “We live in a fast-paced and competitive world, and our families are concerned with setting their children up for the greatest achievement and opportunity. That said, there are things we can do to help our students to unplug and relax. It helps that we are on a beautiful 550-acre campus with abundant opportunities for getting outside, climbing trees, and riding bikes.”
Smith and his colleagues are committed to the goals of connection, safety, challenge, balance, and joy. “While I was happy to see that the overwhelming majority of our students are having a very positive experience, we won’t be happy until every student on the campus feels a strong sense of belonging and knows that their presence is valued here.”