Friends Select's Wellness Program Becomes Essential
In its seventh year, the Friends Select School Wellness Program is essential in providing support, strategies, and resources pertaining to mental health issues for students, families, and employees. Under the leadership of upper school director Chris Singler P’20, ’22, ’27 and the school counseling team—middle and upper school learning specialist Molly Patterson Ed.D., school psychologist Natan Gottesman Ph.D., and middle and upper school counselor Gabrielle Witkin M.S.Ed., M.Phil.Ed., LPC—the program engages the community in topics such as learning styles, peer relationships, social media and internet use, academic pressures, the college application process, and current events.
Program History & Profile
Before the Wellness Program’s formal inception, school counselors hosted upper school wellness lunches to provide safe spaces for students to discuss academic successes and struggles, stress and time management, and navigation of upper school expectations. These small group discussions were both popular and productive, and when Friends Select parents Jeff Abrams and Margaret Barry P’15, ’16 made a generous contribution to support the creation of the formalized Wellness Program, it enabled the counseling team to expand their reach. “We had already been effectively working with upper school students in a systematic way,” said Natan. “But when Jeff and Margaret made their gift and collaborated with us, it raised the profile of the importance of our work and allowed us to broaden the scope of what we could provide for our entire community.”
Through middle and upper school programming, the guidance team initiates open discussions pertaining to mental health and well-being in the form of lunch meetings, small group discussions, and advisory period check-ins. At the close of each school year, they administer a student survey to learn about mental health outcomes and assess the effectiveness of mental health-related education in order to plan ahead. “The success of this program is based on preventive work,” explained Molly, who retired from Friends Select at the end of last school year. “The program allows us to create a culture where it’s not only acceptable but also critical to talk about mental health, and we’re able to provide the students the tools they need.”
Friends Select families are engaged in wellness programming with presentations and outside speakers selected by Natan, Gabby, and Molly. Past events include University of Pennsylvania professor Dr. Ken Ginsburg, co-founder and director of programs at the Center for Parent and Teen Communication; a film screening of Angst: Raising Awareness Around Anxiety, and a corresponding panel discussion that explored the multilayered effects of anxiety on our society; and a book discussion with mental health expert Anthony Rostain and family therapist B. Janet Hibbs, authors of The Stressed Years of Their Lives: Helping Your Kid Survive and Thrive During Their College Years.
Responding to External Impacts
The unforeseen struggles presented by the COVID-19 pandemic elevated mental health awareness within the Friends Select community. For students, it introduced new concerns regarding the transition to virtual learning, the isolation of quarantine, and stresses regarding personal and community safety. “There has been a lot of growth through the pandemic years. When it started, we were already shifting culturally to have a heightened awareness of mental health issues,” explained Gabby.
“During the pandemic, that was amplified and we really picked it up in terms of programming.” During distance learning in the spring of 2020, upper and middle school wellness meetings shifted to a virtual format. Through iSelectLearning, Friends Select’s virtual learning platform, Gabby offered regular “Counselor’s Corner” video messages with tips, tools, and strategies. Topics included gratitude, healthy eating, and separating work and play areas while at home. In addition, counseling office hours were offered to upper school students via Zoom so that they could drop in and process their feelings.
The pandemic also lifted up the importance of mental health care for faculty and staff. In response, Natan created “processing groups” for Friends Select employees, led by Dr. Tina Scott, L.P.C., N.C.P., a private practice therapist and coach, and Dr. Jennifer Fulton, M.S.S., D.S.W., L.C.S.W., a school social worker and a private practice therapist. These small groups provided an opportunity for faculty and staff to come together to process and share their feelings and experiences, and most importantly, benefit from the shared discussion. Additionally, the counseling team facilitated a faculty in-service day in the spring with activities focused on self-care, from yoga and Zumba to candle making, Zen drawing, and massage.
New Programmatic Efforts
This year, counselors introduced Signs of Suicide SOS, an evidence-based youth suicide prevention program that has markedly improved students’ knowledge and attitudes about suicide risk and depression. Designed for middle and upper school students, Signs of Suicide SOS teaches students how to identify signs of depression and suicide in themselves and their peers, while providing materials that train school professionals, parents, and guardians to recognize at-risk students and take appropriate action. During Mental Health Awareness Month in May, Natan and Gabby curated a Wellness Program event to inform caregivers and other community members about warning signs, coping skills, and action steps related to suicide prevention.
As a member of Friends Select’s board of trustees, Jeff Abrams continues to serve the school in a multitude of ways and is especially pleased that the generosity of his family is making a difference through the Wellness Program. “Margaret and I are very happy that the entire concept has received the support from school administration and faculty; everybody who touches the kids’ lives every day is on board with wellness being a critical part of the educational and pastoral mission at Friends Select,” he shared. “The program has surpassed our expectations in the level of creative and compassionate energy its leaders—especially Natan, Gabby, and Molly—have brought to the effort to help it grow and respond to student needs.”
What started as a primarily student-focused program has grown to engage Friends Select families, faculty, staff, and the extended community. “The Wellness Program is a fully coordinated attempt to educate our students, faculty, staff, and families about how health and wellness pertain to all of us,” explained Michael Gary, head of school. “It is our responsibility as a Quaker school to uplift the importance of taking care of one another and ourselves, and the program allows us to be in community.”
Major Van Winkle ’12 Wellness Fund
The Major Van Winkle ’12 Wellness Fund supports programs and activities that create awareness of mental health concerns. Those programs foster open conversations and educate the Friends Select community on recognizing warning signs that may lead to crisis, and they equip students with the skills to increase their overall well-being.
This fund was established through the generosity of Major’s family, classmates, and many friends as a tribute not only to his life but also his care and compassion for others. Major, who took his own life at the age of 26, would have wanted students to have access to the help they need and for them to know that they are not alone.
If You Know Someone in Crisis Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (Lifeline) at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or text the Crisis Text Line (text HELLO to 741741). Both services are free and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The deaf and hard of hearing can contact the Lifeline via TTY at 1-800-799-4889. All calls are confidential. Contact social media outlets directly if you are concerned about a friend’s social media updates or dial 911 in an emergency. Learn more on the Lifeline’s website or the Crisis Text Line’s website.