Q&A with Mr. Lowman on mental health

Q: This is only your second school year as principal of the Upper School, but this year you have had to tackle many difficult and urgent issues that some more seasoned principals never face. How do you feel about the challenges we’ve faced this year?

A:  There are so many different things that we’ve had to face as a community this year and last as well. The fact that we are in the middle of a global pandemic has caused stress and put pressure in different ways than any of us could have expected. We have had difficult situations in our own community that have come up so I would be lying if I told you that it wasn’t difficult and that it wasn’t painful.


Q: One important theme of this school year has been the school’s emphasis on prioritizing health and wellness, including both physical and mental health. What is your definition of wellness?

A: One thing we often talk about is balance. Balancing the various parts of your life so no one part of your life overwhelms you. We know the physical health component is obviously important, but there’s also the mental health, emotional health and even spiritual health. Knowing oneself, that’s also a big part of wellness. It’s not just being healthy. It’s knowing when you’re not well and what you need to do in order to help yourself.


Q: What steps has the administration taken so far to improve student physical and mental health?

A: One thing we are consciously trying to do is putting [the topic] into places in every student’s life where they have to talk about things or have to at least listen to discussions. Making sure that students know what resources we have available to them is why we now meet once a week in advisory. People don’t like the feeling of having their time taken away from them. But I also don’t know how to reconcile having an advisor who doesn’t get to meet with students, and have time to be together to build those bonds. So when times are difficult, there’s one extra adult that’s there. To be able to be more open is a step that we’ve been making. PD days are [when] we do some work that falls outside of that traditional curriculum, empowering teachers to have a stronger voice in supporting students directly, and feeling more ownership even over their ability to have direct support and students.


Q: Looking ahead to the next few years, what are the next wellness goals that the school hopes to prioritize? What steps will you take to achieve those goals?

A: We try to ask ourselves questions like, “are there structures we can put in place that can relieve some of the pressure that students are putting on themselves?” Are there things we can do to give students…more freedom to pursue things that they feel excited about or are improving their well being?” Right now, students are making choices based on fear. We are having these conversations as a faculty, asking how we define a quiz versus how we define a test. We have a policy to support students’ wellbeing that says they can’t have three tests in a day. Yet, a student may have two tests and two quizzes, and that falls outside of the frame of that policy. How do we build it so that we’re not overloading students? How do we structure it so that we’re not naturally funneling all exams and papers due in one week?


Q: What have been some challenges your team has faced in implementing mental health initiatives at school?

A: Knowing that we needed a stronger advisory program took away time that students had previously felt was their time. There has been the comment of “you’re stealing my time.” There are people who question the sincerity of what we’re doing and ask, “Do you really mean that? Are you just doing it for some other reason?” They have every right to say it…I think that’s a challenge. In a dream scenario, the schedule would rotate every day and…shouldn’t be starting until 8:30 or 9:00 a.m. at the earliest. But the logistical constraints of traffic patterns of busing and [facilities] makes it so that it’s not logical. When we celebrate student achievement…what message are we sending? I struggle with this, because I love when students have done something great to celebrate, but when you celebrate some students, other students feel that you’re sending a message to them about…what they should live up to. How are we celebrating success? How do we do that in a healthy way? [We must] find ways as a community to work on that.


Q: Since a person’s mental health is quite private, invisible, and hard to see, what do you think is the school’s role in promoting mental health awareness?

A: One of our main things is to make sure that we have resources available. This comes back to the whole destigmatizing in our community. Making it part of our culture where we are okay talking about these things will mean that someone’s okay talking to their counselor or advisor about it. We do that training with teachers as well. Every single year, we talk about when a student comes to you in this kind of situation, here is how you help that child. It’s such a big cultural thing as well. But as a high schooler, you don’t want to show weakness to your friends, right? There is also that piece where it’s private, which is really important from our end. This may sound cold to say, but we are first and foremost a school. Part of our job is knowing what other resources are out there, what specialists are out there, and who else we can refer families to so that students can receive the support that they need. That’s a tricky one, because they will say, “Why can’t the school take care of this?” This is not just a TAS thing. This is a school thing, and we have to be honest about this.


Q: What is the role of parents in supporting a person’s mental health? How can parents and students partner with the school to promote mental health?

A: Within the student, parent, and school triangle, communication is key. We have to make sure that we’re always on the same page in supporting the child, which really comes through open honest communication. Sometimes what the school perceives to be in the best interest of the child and what the parents perceive that child don’t aren’t in complete alignment and that can be tricky.


Q: We know that many people within our community are aware that a recent graduate published an online petition that accused the school of a lack of mental health support. What was your reaction to the student petitions and how have you addressed them? Any advice to students reading these petitions?

A: I want people to know that the other administrators, counselors and I will listen. We want to hear what people have to say and what ideas that they have. This petition was a little bit tricky because it struck very close to home. I read each of the things [the petition is] asking for, and I feel like each of those things are things we are committed to doing. Last year, I worked very hard to make sure that we had an upper school psychologist, so that meant adding a new middle school psychologist, so we went from two to three. Dr. Poland came in and spoke about suicide awareness and how to support your friends. Dr. Kim came and spoke about many of these same topics. Guest speakers are tricky, because once again, we take time out of people’s lives so in the end 20% of the student body hears that and thinks it’s great. Others might say “You’re wasting my time,” and “You already told us this.” I don’t love the idea of a mental health day, because I believe that it is further stigmatizing mental health. To say that that’s separate and would somehow have been a different category than just your normal allocated absences that you can have for illness and for other reasons. I would hope that we can have it in the same conversation. If you’re not well enough to be at school, you don’t need to be at school. By saying you get two mental health days a year, we are somehow putting a strange limitation on an individual’s mental health and wellness. Dr. Long and Ms. Grande have worked on a number of lessons, our JEDI community has worked on a number of lessons, and Ms. Fagen has worked on lessons.


Q: We know you can’t read student’s minds, but where do you think this frustration comes from? Since this petition does contain errors, why did so many students sign it? What do you think it says about our community’s overall attitude  right now?

A: I think people do genuinely want to support each other, and I’m hopeful that this is a signal people would want a community that supports one another. I hope we can harness this energy so that people are more open to implementing the changes for a more full and robust advisory system. with a more robust culture where people are talking and being more open about these things…I have to look inwardly and say, “How do I communicate this better?” And the hard part again is… that you don’t want to communicate about something that you’re not going to deliver. It’s about figuring out how to communicate more than what and why we’re doing it. That’s something I need to continue to think about and figure out new avenues to do that. So that those misunderstandings don’t happen moving forward. So those kinds of rumors are really hard, and that’s where we need to keep working on this culture where we all are on the same page with trust and common understanding that mental health is health. It is wellness, it is real, and we need to address these issues in a serious way so that people can improve and get better.