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US high school aims to improve student wellbeing with ‘community hour’

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The school will run activities such as yoga, meditation, guest speakers and therapy dog visits. Source: Shutterstock.com

In the spirit of students opening up about mental health, Winchester High School (WHS) has put plans in place to promote student wellbeing. The school intends to dedicate one hour a week to activities related to improving mental health.

The Massachusetts school’s principal, Dennis Mahoney, recently shared his plans for the weekly sessions at a community conversation on mental health and wellness. The meeting took place at the Winchester Public Library.

Every Wednesday afternoon, WHS plans to set aside an hour for the stress-relieving initiatives. The sessions will include enrichment and extra support from teachers and experts in mental health, as well as meetings with guidance counselors. Students will also have time to catch up on homework, and participate in yoga and meditation, as well as enjoy guest speakers and therapy dog visits.

“We’re throwing these things into the high school hoping that we reach as many kids as we can, and that one hour is an hour to do a little less, to not do academics,” Mahoney told Wicked Local Winchester.

WHS hopes to have the community hour in place by the start of next term.

The school community has welcomed the idea. However, there have been concerns raised by some parents that the hour is not proposed to be used for academia.

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Following the biennial Youth Risk Behavior Survey which revealed “worrisome” results, the school decided to step in. Mahoney expressed his concerns over the number of students struggling with their mental health. The school’s 1,400 students rarely have detentions or suspensions, so it can be difficult to spot a child going through troubles.

“There’s a significant difference between being compliant – doing on the surface what they’re supposed to do – and being happy,” Mahoney told Wicked Local Winchester. 

A quarter of students who took the survey reported feeling sad or hopeless. An alarming 15 percent reported purposeful self-harm in the past 12 months. When it comes to suicide, 13 percent had seriously considered it, with 9.7 percent making a plan for suicide and 4.3 percent attempting suicide.

“The numbers are high enough for us to pay attention,” he said.

“Once they really start to have a plan in place, once they think through, it becomes a significant issue. Even 13 percent seriously thinking about it is way too high.”

“We can tell them not to overextend themselves, but they feel like they’re not going to stand up,” said Mahoney.

The survey found students were particularly stressed by school demands, busy schedules, family demands and expectations about grades. The stressors are driven by choice, compulsion and competition, Mahoney noted.

While acknowledging the role school can play in poor mental health for many students, Mahoney also recognises the impact social media can have.

“It’s 24 hours,” he said. “And you can never get off the treadmill of what’s going on in the world.”

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Mahoney claimed the school has numerous resources and experts available to provide students with support, yet “it’s still not enough”.

There are often queues to speak to counselors or pupils have to make advance appointments in order to be seen.

WHS also wish to amend the school’s start time to improve wellbeing. In January, a plan is expected to be brought to the school committee who will determine whether or not this change can go ahead. If approved, the school morning will be pushed back from 7.45am to 8.30am and the end time adjusted accordingly.

“There are many ways to solve a problem, and I think you have to work on it from several angles,” said Mahoney. “I think parents and what they’re doing at home is relevant, but […] schools have a large part of it, at least when it comes to the depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts, and how school start times are connected to those things.”

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