By Julia Elliott
While the Wieler Health Center has long been the destination for those on campus with a nasty cold or a twisted ankle, for Director of Health Services Danielle Shippey, it serves as something more: a place of respite that comes with some TLC. “Our hope is that students feel it’s a place they can come to if there’s something they’re struggling with—whether it’s a rough day or a significant medical issue—and we can help navigate what they need for support.”
During the pandemic, this place of respite, located at the bottom of Wieler dormitory, took on an outsized role in the safe operation of the School. “The lengths that the School went to in order to keep everyone safe were unbelievably impressive,” says Zach McClain, M.D., who joined as the School’s medical director in the fall of 2021.
Shippey and McClain serve as members of the School’s COVID-19 Steering Committee, providing crucial medical insight and ensuring that COVID-19 policies and procedures are grounded in science. “We have a wonderfully supportive administration that listens to our medical advice, and that’s really important,” says McClain.
“During COVID, the Health Center made a tremendous effort to create a strong culture of kindness and helpfulness on behalf of students and each other, to respect confidentiality, to make sure our practice was up-to-date, and to be diligent in developing efficient processes,” remembers Jared Zelman, M.D., who retired as medical director last summer. “What a joy to treat kids in an environment like that!”
For the Health Center team, guiding the School through the challenging days of COVID-19 in this way has meant a transition of their own, from providing largely reactive care to taking on significant leadership responsibilities. “Because of the pandemic, we are guiding students how to live their lives outside of the walls of the Health Center, and that’s an entirely different role for us,” says McClain.
Fortunately, within Health Services, the medical and counseling departments share physical space and collaborate with a shared mission. Bringing the two specialties of physical and mental health together organizationally strengthens the Health Center’s ability to meet students where they are and understand their needs.
Using Their Strength to Support the Community
Overall, the Health Center is powered by a nurse practitioner, a team of registered nurses, two administrative support staff, a part-time driver, and five mental health counselors, in addition to Shippey and McClain. Currently, the Health Center employs 10 full-time, one part-time, and eight per diem nurses.
Even before the pandemic hit, says McClain, “the nursing staff in particular was such a powerful force in taking care of students. When they don’t feel well, these kids need that reassurance, that band aid, that little extra TLC that mom or dad would give, and that really comes from the nurses.”
Not only did staffing needs change during the pandemic, the Health Center also had to expand its physical space. Before COVID, four overnight beds were more than adequate. To increase capacity and to have the ability to isolate patients, the Health Center took over 11 rooms on the first floor of Wieler. They also built a COVID-19 testing center in the common room that includes a negative pressure room, which keeps potentially contaminated air from flowing into uncontaminated areas.
“Building a COVID-19 testing center with a negative pressure room is significant,” says McClain. For comparison, at McClain’s previous job, one of the top children’s hospitals in the country often had just one negative pressure room per floor of the hospital.
Wellness and Well-Being are Top Priorities
The Health Center continues to deal with a national emotional and mental health crisis, one that has hit teenagers particularly hard.
On a national level, data show that teens’ mental and emotional health have been negatively affected by the pandemic. Earlier this year, the American Academy of Pediatrics declared a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health.
“This is consistent with what we have observed this year in the Health Center,” says Jodi von Jess P’19, director of counseling services. “We have seen more students seeking mental health services, an increased sense of responsibility among students for the well-being of others (for example, referring friends for help), and more signs of stress and anxiety.”
The increase in the number of students taking advantage of the School’s counseling services has meant an increase in clinical significance as well as volume for the School’s counselors. von Jess is grateful that the counselors at Hotchkiss are “highly skilled clinicians who strive to understand teenagers and support them for the little things, the medium things, and the big things. We appreciate where the students are developmentally, and what their needs are at different stages.”
The Hotchkiss counseling team includes five licensed and highly-skilled counselors with a combined expertise and professional interest in delivering culturally grounded, trauma-informed psychotherapy services to all students.
“Having a trusted adult is one of the most important and protective factors in an adolescent’s life,” von Jess explains. “Focusing on teens’ strengths and their ability to adapt and change can support young people in feeling empowered.”
The good news is that the adolescent brain is in the process of changing and maturing, and it is highly flexible and resilient. Thus, when teens have the support they need—including caring, meaningful connections with adults and ideally with at least one peer—they can and will recover from distressing experiences.
Keeping Up with Student Needs
One way Hotchkiss deepens its understanding of the experience students are having on campus is by asking them, using a completely anonymous survey tool. The High Achieving Schools Survey (HASS) was created in partnership with Authentic Connections, a nationally recognized organization comprising leading scientists and clinicians focused on helping schools quantify, track, and improve student well-being.
The HASS survey was first administered in the fall of 2020 and will continue to be fielded twice a year. Its findings provide insight on behaviors and experiences including teacher interactions and students’ overall perception of adult support; homework volume; relationships among peers; use of social media; substance use; school climate; and student perceptions of inclusion and equity, among others.
The results are compared to data from a pool of more than 17,000 students at high achieving schools across the country. Findings are shared with faculty, students, and parents, and they provide insight into school climate, student culture, and family support.
The counseling team values the opportunity to work closely with parents. “We understand what it’s like not to be with your kids,” says von Jess. “We partner with parents to offer developmental guidance and support as we all work to remain connected with teenagers during these important years.”
To provide an added sense of comfort for students and space for distress tolerance, the Health Center has created the “Lounge,” a room filled with comfy furniture, soothing lighting, and sensory objects like coloring books, wall chalk, and a water feature machine. It’s a place where students can go to take a pause, destress, and manage their emotions.
One way the Health Center has worked to address mental health on campus has been by including students as resources for each other. Roughly 40 seniors and upper mids participate in the Peer Listeners Committee (PLC). These students are trained by School counselors to be empathetic listeners, and they make themselves readily available to their peers on campus. Other student organizations include a Hotchkiss chapter of “Bring Change 2 Mind,” which is a national organization working to destigmatize mental health, and ROCILO, an affinity group for Relatives of Chronically Ill Loved Ones.
Empowering peers and trusted adults to help one another has been a crucial component in creating what von Jess calls a community of care. “Often when students share their own experiences about counseling or mental health, it can destigmatize asking for help,” von Jess explains. “Providing holistic care is not just about hiring more counselors or creating a meditation space. I think the whole community has helped foster an atmosphere where we are all responsible for caring for each other.”
In summarizing the experience of working with students, von Jess puts it simply: “They are amazing!”