Mental Health, COVID-19, Pandemics and the Power of Community

Posted by Kara Kidder

08/29/2020

As we ready ourselves to begin a school year like no other, Proctor’s counselors wanted to reflect on the emotional well being of our immediate and extended Proctor Community. On Monday, employees were given our COVID tests. The experience was striking in many ways. It is fair to say that none of us could have imagined that this scene would unfold on our campus to begin a school year. As we stood in the socially distanced line, we all processed in our own way, this completely new scene. Leaving the testing site, I felt relieved, impressed (by the organization and efficiency of the effort), and most importantly energized. Our Proctor community is showing up; showing up eager to engage, eager to problem solve, eager to do something slightly uncomfortable, for the sake of reconvening as a community, physically together.

Proctor Academy Boarding Prep School New EnglandProctor Academy Boarding Prep School New England

This experience left us excited about seeing students back on campus and to witness their reconvening. Every year, even after short holiday breaks, those emotional reconnections, the hugs, and the laughter can’t help but make us smile. It’s difficult to imagine what it will be like this year and how students will be able to restrain themselves from expressing physical affection when they see each other. The need to restrain themselves from physical contact is one of several changes or losses they will experience and it’s likely some will need support to help them navigate these necessary changes. Some students may feel resentment about not being able to do something that feels like a basic human need, like hugging a friend.

Our students will come back to Proctor affected in different ways by the pandemic and the current political, social, and environmental strife facing our country and the world. We need to get to know our students again and their experience of the last six months to see what kind of support they might need. Some will express that they are tired of talking about it, but all of them will have had the experience of having the school life they knew upended, their routines broken and the everyday security of daily connections with friends and faculty suddenly halted, while also experiencing angst about the current political, social and environmental climate. 

Proctor Academy Boarding Prep School New EnglandProctor Academy Boarding Prep School New England

For those adolescents who have never had their world change so rapidly into the unknown, there may be generalized worries about what else could happen and feelings of anxiety. For students who have already experienced or struggled with anxiety or depression, it is likely that these new and different stressors in our landscape have caused them to feel less secure. Some Proctor students have come through the past six months feeling good about themselves and about how they have coped, but we want to be mindful of those who still may be worried or feeling depressed or have a delayed reaction.  We think it’s important for all students that we create a narrative that highlights the strengths they have demonstrated throughout this experience and to let them know that we have noticed and celebrate their resiliency. We hope this story becomes integrated into their positive identity about how they deal with life's challenges. 

Proctor Academy Boarding Prep School New EnglandProctor Academy Boarding Prep School New England

Over the course of the past six months, we, as counselors, have been consistently approached with questions about how we will help with the emotional needs of an entire community impacted by these crises. Full transparency-- despite our training in mental health, we don’t have training, a prescription to hand out, or any special therapeutic techniques to help cure the emotional impact of a worldwide pandemic, civil unrest, and a climate crisis. What we do have, what we ALL have, more powerful than any therapeutic technique, is our common human experience. There is nothing that makes us feel more like imposters than trying to prescribe an articulate treatment plan that will cure the emotional impact of the current state of the world.  We write to you as humans, not experts, experiencing this crisis together, from a community of grit, resilience, and compassion. We hope that our shared experiences and our ability to facilitate community engagement will help us all heal, cope, and move forward together into this new school year in a changed world. Although Proctor is not a "therapeutic school”, the effect of being at Proctor for many students is healing. It is impossible to define the quality or find the source of this atmosphere as it seems built into Proctor’s DNA, but if we had to name a few obvious factors it would be that students experience faculty and staff who care about them, are attentive, accessible and simply enjoy them. They find adults to trust.

In the spring, just weeks into the COVID shutdown, we wrote about Radical Acceptance. As a reminder, radical acceptance is a skill central to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, specifically Dialectal Behavioral Therapy, the work of Marsha Linehan. Radical acceptance is not to be confused with readily accepting situations or circumstances with passive contentment because we have no other choice.  Rather, it is learning to come to terms with circumstances that are beyond our control; learning to proactively accept allows for an increase in the tolerance of distress. 

Proctor Academy Boarding Prep School New EnglandProctor Academy Boarding Prep School New England

Keep Practicing Radical Acceptance

After six months, we have all had ample opportunity to practice radical acceptance. What now?  How much more do we have to accept?  What happens to one's own psyche when asked for prolonged periods of time to accept and tolerate discomfort? Unfortunately, we need to persist at honing our skills; the shifts in our lifestyles and our predicted futures continue to unfold. What we need to do now, is reflect on how all of this radical acceptance is impacting us. How are we managing it? What effect is it having on us?  As Matt Nathanson referenced in his graduation speech, “how are we tending to our own dirt?”  We invite you to explore your own landscape, your own dirt. What challenges have you and do you continue to face related to the upheaval we are all facing related to the pandemic, a complex political social landscape, and environmental crisis? What strengths have you found during these challenging times? What have you done to care for yourself and others? Have you found any unexpected opportunities or sources of enjoyment?

Practice Self-Care

Practicing self-care during such unpredictable and complex situations is difficult. We know that you are capable of finding and reading resources on coping with anxiety. What you won’t learn reading resources on self-care is what works for you individually or the benefits from active participation in self-care. There are many factors that interfere with self-care: we are busy doing important things, old stories bubbling in our consciousness interfere telling us that self-care is selfish, or that others are more important. Now is the time to make a self-proclamation of self-care.  Be deliberate, and intentional in your effort. A practice of self-care is an investment in not only yourself but your family, friends, and community.

Hold the Future Lightly

In addition to self-care efforts remember to hold the future lightly. It is a core human urge to seek certainty. We are currently saturated with uncertainty. Avoid ascribing to overly optimistic or catastrophic predictions of the future; change is the only certainty we can predict. Additionally, work on treating yourself compassionately. Remember the hard work of coping in a changing world is consistently in the background of your consciousness, even while focusing on what is immediately in front of you. This takes energy, leaving us a bit more depleted. Recognize the energy tax we are currently charged with and lower expectations of yourself, acknowledging your successes in coping as important.

Allow for the Emergence of New Flexibility and Resilience

Further, allow for the emergence of new/different with flexibility and resilience.  Let go of the rigid thinking that we need to seek a return to normalcy. Instead, let’s seek opportunities for growth. The underlying pandemics we are facing as a society can also serve as a catalyst.  Individually, collectively as a Proctor community and beyond, we can move beyond seeking a return to normal and instead seek improvement.

Proctor Academy Boarding Prep School New EnglandProctor Academy Boarding Prep School New England

We have confidence in our Proctor community. We know that our core values are as relevant, if not more so, now than they have ever been. Our duty to engage honestly, responsibly, respectfully, and compassionately will continue to be the foundation that we engage in to reconvene in a changed world. We know that our strength in building Proctor relationships will help us heal, cope, and thrive. Please reach out at the email addresses linked below  to start the process of establishing or continuing these meaningful relationships. We are eager to engage with students and families.

Kara Kidder P'24 and Robin Mayer 

Click here to read: The Role of Radical Acceptance in Our Lives 

    

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