Getting Better
High schools invest in staff and programs to prioritize students’ mental health.
by Bill Donahue

More than 30 years have passed since John Denton graduated from a private high school Bucks County. The memories of his high school days have faded, mostly because he has done his best to forget them.

“I hated high school—hated it,” says Denton, who asked to use a different last name for privacy’s sake. “I couldn’t wait for it to be over so real life could begin. All the kids had their cliques, and I wasn’t part of any of them. I didn’t feel like I mattered, and I got through it mostly alone. I had a tough road.”
At the time, Denton did not feel comfortable talking to his parents about the isolation and worthlessness he was feeling, either because he thought they would not understand or because they already had enough on their plates: full-time jobs, a mortgage and other bills, a daughter with special needs who required constant care.
“I know our school had a college counselor, but I think I sat down with him twice at the most, and I got nothing out of it,” Denton recalls. “I don’t know if we had a counselor you could talk to about other stuff—life stuff, like how you were feeling. I don’t know if I would have bothered even if we did, so I kept it all to myself.”
So much has changed since Denton’s time in high school, which he has seen through the eyes of his two teenaged daughters. On the negative side, students now have to deal with the around-the-clock distractions of social media; increased pressure to perform academically and athletically, among other ways, to improve their chances of getting into a good college; and other stressors, such as the never-ending rancor of politics and culture wars, real-life wars halfway around the world, and, much closer to home, the specter of school shootings. On the plus side, students have more resources than ever to find resolution to their struggles.
Many area schools, both public and private, have made students’ mental health a priority. A few examples:
* Villanova-based Academy of Notre Dame de Namur has launched a school-wide initiative focused on the well-being, mental health, and social-emotional growth of the all-girls’ student body. ND Cares provides girls with the skills and resources needed to help themselves, as well as to recognize when a friend or classmate may be in distress. As part of its efforts, Notre Dame has partnered with mental-health organizations such as The Jed Foundation and The Social Institute, the latter of which helps students navigate social media in a healthy manner.
* Gwynedd Mercy Academy High School in Gwynedd Valley has adopted a novel schedule that ties directly into the school’s commitment to protecting the student body’s mental and emotional health The schedule gives students more freedom and control over their time, with several goals in mind: to help students focus more intently on their academics; to provide them with more flexibility to pursue extracurriculars, athletics, and other pursuits, with leeway for socializing with peers; and to give students more time to meet with college counselors and otherwise plan for the future.
* Salesianum School in Wilmington, Delaware, has expanded its guidance department to give students a safe space where they can seek advice, discuss any struggles they may be having, and receive help with their course assignments or college preparation. Besides opportunities to meet with students one on one, Salesianum has implemented mental-health programs through partnerships with organizations such as Bring Change to Mind, which strives to end the stigma surrounding mental illness.
* In addition to offering counseling services and student programming surrounding mental health, the Perkiomen School in Pennsburg has partnered with the Sellersville-based nonprofit Penn Foundation to support students and employees. Through the agreement, the school has 24/7 access to a crisis team, should an issue arise. The Penn Foundation has also helped the school complete some faculty training and streamline access to mental-health services for students and their families.  
* Friends’ Central School in Wynnewood prioritizes students’ mental health in multiple ways, from the opportunity to explore new passions to fostering an environment of support where students can thrive. While counselors and teachers collaborate to nurture this environment, school psychologists provide additional social and emotional support, when needed. If continuing care is required, the staff can provide referrals to professionals who have experience working with children and families.
Denton is happy to see such progress. He sees the experience his two daughters have had at their private high school in Montgomery County—the youngest a sophomore, the oldest a senior—and both seem happier, more focused, and more balanced than he ever remembers being at their age.
“It’s the environment, the understanding that mental health plays a huge role in how kids do in school,” he says. “Where my daughters go [to school], they do their best to be inclusive and positive, and to prepare these kids for the world they’re growing up in. To be honest, considering how much I hated my time in school, I had some anxiety over how my girls would do. I have been pleasantly surprised—amazed, sort of, but I shouldn’t be because they’re great kids.”
If either of his daughters does need help in regard to her mental health, he believes she would feel comfortable coming to him or his wife. He also likes the idea that they have a “safety net” at school.
“Looking back, I think a lot of my problems at that age were in my own head,” he adds. “When you’re a kid, you think wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, is going to last forever, so if you’re in a bad headspace, it can really hurt you, hold you back.
“I shouldn’t have taken school so seriously, because none of it really mattered; it was just the beginning, the precursor to much better times. There are a lot of kids today with much worse problems than I ever had, but at least they have more help when and if they need it.”
Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Life, September 2022.