A Struggling Community: Turbulence Strikes the Léman Mental Health Department

By Sara Sajjad & Charli Reda

Photo credits to Lili Sposato Lili Sposato
The abrupt resignation of the Lower School psychologist, Monique Ross, has forced Upper School counselors J. Denise (JD) Fuller and Jillian Wolinsky to split their time between the Lower and Upper schools. While this change seems moderate, it has yet to prove to be manageable, with an overflow of students and shorter meetings for students with JD and Ms. J in an attempt to accommodate their roles in overseeing the mental health of Léman’s pre-K - 12 students.
"It's a temporary arrangement," Dr. Leonardatos, the head of the Upper School, states with confidence. "I know that at some point, they're going to be back here full-time."
Changes like this speak to the bigger picture of Leman's increasing mental health crisis and emphasize the need for change.
Lack of staffing within the mental health department and student access to counselors at Léman have created unease.
Polling of Léman students in grades eight-to- twelve conducted by The Bullhorn, indicated that 87.5% of students felt the availability of mental health services was lacking, rating the availability as “below average.” However, the same poll rated the quality of mental health services as “high” and “slightly above average.”
Léman 8th grader Gia Agresta added a comment echoed by the polling data. “Most people know where the guidance counselor is, but I think there’s a lot of people that are in the office, so you get nervous that someone's going to see you. Not a lot of people go and talk about their feelings.”
However, this is not only a problem within our community but a byproduct of the mental health crisis affecting teens worldwide, which has resulted chiefly from the COVID-19 pandemic. A new CDC report names school a "vital lifeline" to help struggling youth, raising awareness of the need for this support. In addition, the newsroom release uncovers the record high levels of violence, sadness, and suicide risk among teenage girls and ongoing distress among LGBTQ+ students.
"Young people are experiencing a level of distress that calls on us to act with urgency and compassion," said CDC Division of Adolescent and School Health Director Kathleen Ethier, Ph.D. "With the right programs and services in place, schools have the unique ability to help our youth flourish."
Students these days face complex levels of stress, with themes of overcoming anxieties and mental health struggles, and these issues have become increasingly prominent within our Leman community. It is imperative to understand that these challenges require much time and effort to see progress, with academic and home environments being major contributors.
Given the mental health challenges students are facing, the questions circling the Léman community include: How is Léman handling this new change? Is everyone's mental health being thought of? Are two counselors enough? And most importantly, what can we do to help our at-risk community?
Dean Brandon Miller discussed his reaction to the absence of a psychologist to the Lower School community and how this news is currently impacting the Upper School. "For me, my immediate thought was, who's going to serve the kids over there?... I also considered whether our Lower School has a Dean of Students."
This question further prompted him to think about his experience with elementary-level students and what could positively impact them, saying, "Sometimes they might need a dean over there."
He also spoke about actions he has been taking to ensure all parties feel supported during this time, mentioning, "I think, for me, it just meant stepping up and helping out the two counselors that we have here, knowing that they split their time over there. So just making sure I'm available, and if I am available, I'm open to helping students."
In speaking with Dr. Harry Leonardatos, the change included many concerns. As this occurrence has already limited the amount of mental health assistance students at Léman can access, questions with no definitive answers have swirled around the admin. "Well, the first question I had obviously, I'm sure that the head of Lower School had the same question: Gee, what now? What happens if, you know, at the Lower School, we have a vacancy for an important position? How is that going to be filled?"
When asked what will happen moving forward and if having more support would be influential within the mental health community at Léman, Dr. Leonardatos said, "I would like to have both JD and Miss J here all the time, but I understand that the Lower School also needs some support."
Continuing to help the children in the Lower School navigate the challenges they face in the early years of their lives is extremely helpful to their futures, as their emotional development has the opportunity to mature.  
Dr. Leonardatos mentions the importance of having counselors as a support system, especially in schools, and how helpful they are within a community. "Students sometimes have issues that we can try to handle as administrators, but if deeper things are going on, that's when we need school counselors because that's what they're trained to do."
Administrators have strong confidence in our counselors and students navigating these challenging situations. However, is that being reflected in reality? Is Léman truly providing the safe and supportive environment on which it prides itself?
Let's face the facts: Léman, like many other schools, currently struggles with mental health and social-emotional issues. Students are piling up in the counselors’ offices because of burnout, fatigue, long classes, and a turbulent post-COVID environment. With teacher changes every month, stressful and intense classes, inconsistent policies, and students' personal struggles, the number of students needing assistance with their mental health or a safe place to talk and take a break is proliferating.
JD and Ms. J are tirelessly running between buildings helping hundreds of children. Unfortunately, Leman's efforts are not cutting it, and we are setting ourselves up for a potential mental-health disaster.  
Léman bounced back quickly from COVID-19, but we failed to account for the significant impact that online school and such sudden changes have had on our mental health by having adequate mental health staffing. We were so focused on being one of the few schools back in-person that we seemingly ignored some of the deeper issues arising in our time away.
We tried patching holes with mental health assemblies and advisory presentations but needed more. Two counselors were barely enough then, and now more than one additional counselor is necessary. The hope is that Léman will start questioning why students are overflowing the counseling office in the first place and self-reflect on how, as a school, we might be fueling this crisis.
When we fail to see the pandemic's repercussions on students and teachers, we fail to make effective policies, expectations, and procedures that help our school community, negatively impacting everyone's education.
Ms. J says, "Everyone's mental health impacts all aspects of their life, especially in a school setting when stress and pressure have increased. Léman needs to continue to put mental health at the center of its work. We have made progress in this area, and there is always room for growth! The pandemic has impacted everyone in a variety of ways, and it is ongoing. School expectations always impact mental health, the pandemic alone is not the culprit but certainly a contributing factor."
Additional reporting for this article credited to Genevieve Coren