Top of Mind
Expanded outreach and adjusted scheduling account for some of the many ways local schools nurture students’ mental health.
by Mindy Toran

Going to school in the year 2022 is enough to make even the most well-balanced student a little anxious. Many schools have responded by prioritizing students’ mental health.
“The pandemic definitely put a spotlight on mental health challenges in schools,” says Molly Ontiveros, a licensed therapist and assistant director of guidance at Salesianum School in Wilmington, Delaware. “It served as a magnifying glass and exacerbated a lot of the issues kids may have been having pre-COVID. On a positive note, I think our students are more willing to ask for help and acknowledge that no one is at their best right now, and that’s okay.”
Salesianum, like many other high schools, strives to make the guidance department a safe space for students to go for advice, to discuss any issues they may be having, to seek help with their course assignments or college preparation. Considering the challenges of the past two years, the department has also become a place where students go to destress.
“Patrick Dever, our other community counselor, and I are always available to meet with students in regard to their mental health needs,” says Ontiveros. “We’ve definitely been busier in the guidance department than in past years. There are a lot more students with anxiety, as they get back into the routine of in-person learning and figuring out what normalcy looks like. We’re also seeing some students feeling a bit more isolated, particularly our underclassmen, who haven’t really had opportunities to build connections with their peers.”
In addition to meeting individually with students to discuss their concerns, work on coping strategies, and talk through their stressors, Salesianum has implemented a number of programs to help students deal with mental health challenges. Last year, for example, the school formed the first local chapter of Bring Change to Mind (, a national organization dedicated to ending the stigma and discrimination surrounding mental illness. The group holds weekly meetings around various topics to engage students and welcome them to discuss their struggles openly.
“We recently had a guest speaker who came in to talk about pluralistic ignorance, which is that feeling that everyone else has it together except for me,” says Ontiveros. “We had a follow-up conversation with our students about how the topic resonated with them, what are some of the things that weigh them down, sharing some of the things they’re going through and recognizing that many of their classmates are feeling the same way.”
Salesianum also offers a peer-counseling program, where juniors and seniors receive training on empathic listening and how to support fellow students without judgment. Ontiveros says the program helps students identify those who may be struggling and “figure out how to support each other in a more formal way.”
At Gwynedd Mercy Academy High School in Gwynedd Valley, the focus on nurturing the whole the student—mind, body, and spirit—is at the forefront of the school’s wellness program, which was implemented just before the pandemic. Eileen Carty, dean of student affairs at Gwynedd Mercy Academy, works in collaboration with the school’s team of guidance and college counselors, ministry and service, L.E.A.D., alumni engagement, and diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice, among other departments, to implement grade-specific programming goals to address the holistic needs of students. 
“Pre-COVID, one of the things that kept cropping up was the topic of students’ mental health and the pressure to perform and get into a good college, and balancing that with sports and other extracurricular activities, as well as the social challenges of being a high school student,” says Carty. “Fast-forward to the pandemic and all of the additional stress and emotional impacts [the pandemic] has had on teenagers. We knew we had to do something to support the mental health and wellbeing of our students.”
Gwynedd recently moved from a traditional daily schedule of eight 40-minute periods to a revised schedule of four 80-minute periods. Carty suggests the revised schedule goes hand in hand with students’ mental health.
“The way our schedule was organized [before], it really didn’t give the girls enough time to breathe, to have time in their day to touch base with teachers, make up a test, catch up with friends, etc.,” she adds. “We now have a community period built into every day during which students can attend clubs, meet with teachers or get other work done during the school day. This gives the kids time to plan ahead and have a much more balanced approach to the school day.”
In addition, students have a lunch/WIN (What I Need) period in the middle of the day. This flexibility period enables them to get schoolwork done at the learning commons, get a head start on homework, or meet with friends.
“These programming changes have been a critical part of helping our students plan ahead, utilize their time more wisely and, as a result, find more balance,” says Carty. “We’re giving them the resources they need to ensure that they’re taking care of themselves and providing them with social, educational, and emotional support that will help them succeed in the future.”
Students ‘PAWS’ to Destress
When students returned to in-person learning at Radnor Township School District in the spring of 2021, they had some very special visitors of the four-legged variety. 

PAWS for People, a pet-therapy organization based in Newark, Delaware, began sending teams of volunteers and their dogs to visit Radnor Middle School and Radnor High School for daily destress sessions. The dogs met with the students in the library during their lunch break to interact with in whichever ways they felt comfortable. Some kids sprawled out on the floor with the dogs, others offered a hug or a pat, and some sat and talked to the dogs and their handlers. 
“We’ve had PAWS teams in the middle school since around 2017, when we started having volunteers come in with their dogs to read to our special-needs classes,” says Andrea McMenamin, an emotional-support teacher and special-education chair at Radnor Middle School. “We also had one of the dogs—a bulldog named Rutland—join us on a regular basis in the emotional-support program.”
Cate Bryson, a PAWS volunteer and site manager, says the organization had often provided “destress sessions” to universities around exam time, as well as other sites throughout the community. When Radnor Township School District approached PAWS with the idea of using daily pet-therapy sessions to help students transition back to in-person learning, PAWS mobilized.
“We sent out a call to our teams looking for volunteers and the answer was a resounding yes,” Bryson adds. “Once the teams were identified and background checks and clearances were completed, we began doing pet-therapy sessions at the middle school two days a week, and three days a week at the high school. The dogs really lifted the spirits of the kids and brought joy to the faculty and staff as well.”
Lynae Young, a PAWS volunteer, was excited to help. So was Dakota, her Bernese mountain dog. 
“The first time we visited Radnor High School, we didn’t even make it to the library for the first half hour of our shift,” says Young. “So many students stopped to greet Dakota in the hallways that she lay down right there. ... Our hope is that everyone leaves their PAWS visit with a smile on their face—and maybe a few dog hairs to remember Dakota by.”
David Wiedlich, Ed.D., principal at Radnor Middle School, has been thrilled with the program’s success. He describes the resulting interactions as “heartwarming.” 
“You walk into the room and you instantly feel at ease, and it gives the kids a chance to just sit and relax,” he adds. “You can literally see their stress melting away.”
Photograph courtesy of Photograph courtesy of PAWS for People
Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Life magazine, April 2022.