In photo above, seniors at St. Francis Catholic High School, left to right, Elise Blomquist, Brooke Harmon and Mia Lederer, are part of the peer team of the wellness program at St. Francis High School in Sacramento.
As mental health challenges faced by teens are growing worse – heightened by the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic and increased social media use – high schools around the country have pursued new strategies to help students cope.
In February 2023, a Centers for Disease Control report found that 57% of U.S. teen girls felt persistently sad or hopeless in 2021. That was double the rate among boys and a nearly 60 percent increase from 2011, and the highest level in the past decade.
The rise in mental health challenges is not attributable to one culprit alone, says Kym Weinandy, who has headed the wellness department for the past nine years at the all-girls St. Francis Catholic High School in Sacramento, which has more than 960 students.
“The level of pressures on our young people has increased compared to the past few decades,” says Kym, who is a licensed marriage and family therapist and holds a master’s degree from CSU-Sacramento in marriage and family counseling and school counseling. Before coming to St. Francis, she was the counseling coordinator for 10 years at Mercy Education Resource Center, supervising interns at several Catholic elementary schools.
“Young people are going through a level of distress that compels us to act with urgency and compassion,” she says. She notes that experts say mental health issues among teens have many origins, including the pandemic, social media toxicity and addiction, information and texting overload, racial inequality and fear of school shootings. Some students can suffer from social or generalized anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and thoughts of self-harm.
“Social media offers so much information but with so few filters, and combined with texting they have 24/7 access to each other,” Kym adds. “There is a lot of comparison that goes on with other teens who seem to ‘have the perfect life.’” There are so many falsehoods promoted on social media.”
She commends St. Francis High School for recognizing the mental health needs of its students by opening the Wellness Center nine years ago. The high school explored various options to provide support and peer counseling. On campus, the peer counselors form the Guardian Angels Peer Team, an intimate and trusted group of 12-15 girls who are selected to receive special training that helps them offer support to their fellow students. Kym meets regularly with the Peer Team to check in and offer her assistance and guidance.
Her role in the Guardian Angels Peer Team is “to train and mentor a selected group of students to become social and emotional supporters for their peers,” she says. “They are very open-minded about all levels of diversity. In the past few years, they have been more proactive in diversity efforts and have offered all kinds of support.”
Along with choosing and training each year’s team of Guardian Angels, Kym is entrusted with assigning Peer Team members to students. She assigns team members to students “based on their availability, as well as what unique skill set they will offer to the student,” she says.
What sets the team apart from other forms of counseling is its easy accessibility and emphasis on students supporting each other. “Young people would often rather listen to other young people. Peer-to-peer support is very powerful since they can relate at the same level of currently being teens in these complex times of being a teen,” Kym notes. Peer Team members never lecture or advise their peers, they simply listen, offer suggestions, establish a connection, and provide support.
Anything a peer says to a team member stays confidential, unless it falls under one of three exceptions: if someone is physically hurting them, if they are planning to physically hurt someone else, or if they are seriously injuring or planning to hurt or kill themselves.
Kym notes that many girls, if they are feeling anxiety in their school or personal life, do turn to their Catholic faith for hope and comfort. Peer team members “know that some girls turn to their faith in their struggles. They are open to helping others with their spirituality.”
“I support students wherever they are on their faith journey,” she adds. “Many of them do talk to me about it. When they go through loss in their lives, they can have many questions. Their teen years are a time when they examine their identity, whether it is their Catholic identity or other aspects of their spiritual and religious lives.”
The role of a Guardian Angel is not a job taken lightly by the team, Kym says. “They see it as a responsibility and a way to better their community. Peer Team members say the program has benefited the St. Francis community at large by defusing the stigma around mental health issues and creating a better environment for wellness.”
“The Peer Team gives teens an added layer of support at a time when they experience so much change and growth,” Kym says. “They promote overall wellness, whether it’s physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual or social. They will likely never know how many lives they have impacted and changed for the better.”
In their own words: Students speak about wellness and mental health
Seniors Mia Lederer, Brooke Harmon and Elise Blomquist, all Peer Team members of the Wellness Program at St. Francis High School, shared their thoughts with Catholic Herald magazine about many factors impacting the mental health of young people today, and how their faith can help accompany them in the healing process.
Our peer team is a supportive resource on campus. I’ve supported my peers in so many different ways. Last year, I was the leader of two support groups and facilitated discussion: one for medical conditions and another for students with anxiety.
I’m also involved with our podcast, called “Ask an Angel,” where we discuss different mental health-related topics. We interview specialists and have covered heavier topics like suicide and eating disorders, artistic healing for anxiety, and lighter topics such as back-to-school health and taking care of yourself.
At the start of each school year, we have a three-hour training with Miss Kym, who is a licensed therapist, and we learn about body language and eye contact, etc. We do a lot of practice scenarios and how to handle every kind of possible situation.
When I started at St. Francis, I was dealing with a lot of mental health issues. I had a lot of anxiety and I didn’t know where to go to get support. I felt intimidated and sometimes scared to reach out to an adult for help. It felt very daunting.
I joined the peer team as I wanted to be able to support students who were going through a similar period that I did, to be that supportive figure they need, without it feeling scary for them to reach out – to just feel like you are talking to a friend, that’s so important.
Our class went through the pandemic so we’ve been unique. I was a freshman in fall 2020 and winter 2021. We had been on Zoom and I’d never set foot on campus before. When I came back it was a strange environment as students were half on campus, half online, some wearing masks, some not. I wasn’t used to it and often I would panic and get sick physically. Many students felt isolated and COVID led to many different mental health issues for so many.
A big part of our role – which is important for us to respect – is confidentiality with the students that we meet with. We keep it confidential, unless it’s a threat to that student’s safety or if we think they may harm themselves or another person.
Besides the COVID-19 pandemic, other factors that contribute to mental health concerns are the pressure to do well at a college preparatory high school, and social media usage and addiction. There’s so much pressure, not only to get good grades, but to get into a good college. You have to be doing the best you can in every way, because it’s so competitive. Not only have mental health issues increased, they are also being talked about more in the past few years. There’s so much more awareness and the stigma is decreasing.
I have struggled with social media and how it can affect my mood. Not only do I find myself comparing myself to other people on social media, but also it can be very addictive and I find myself just scrolling mindlessly a lot and then feeling terrible afterward. So I really had to work at self-discipline.
Being raised Catholic and as a graduate of Sacred Heart School, one of my deep values is to be of service to others. That motivates me in everything I do. In helping other people who are struggling, I am achieving that service mentality, sacrificing my own time to be with other people.
I never want to assume what another student’s faith journey is, but if she brings it up, I’m happy to share how God has supported me and how you can rely on your faith in your struggles. It’s a chance to say we can walk together with God in the healing process. I often will recommend to people struggling – whether they are religious or not – to get involved with our retreats, to get to know God in a new setting and what God looks like for them.
My values are shaped by being raised Catholic and attending Holy Trinity Church and School in El Dorado Hills. I am comfortable sharing my values with others as a peer team member. We are taught as Catholics to accept everyone, no matter what the issue. It’s important to be mindful of everyone’s feelings and not to have misperceptions. A big part of our job is to listen, to get better insight into who the student is as a person, and what she is facing.
Our faith teaches us it’s important to support others, to love, and not to judge others. People are often going through more than you realize.
I am a very empathetic person. I match well with people’s emotions and feel them myself. I want to help teens with what they are struggling through and with their challenges today.
You have to learn how to set boundaries when helping others. We learn a lot about confidentiality and we don’t tell anyone else what others tell us, unless we thought they would be of harm to themselves or others.
Our four years have been a time unlike any other. We started our freshman year on Zoom classes and in January 2021 we went hybrid, two days online and two on campus. It was very lonely and there were not a lot of people sitting together. You had to make friends in your classes. It was definitely lonelier and we couldn’t get close to people.
There are many more mental health challenges for teens today than in past years, because of social media and how it has exploded into teens’ lives, with everyone posting “my life is perfect,” and this is how I look, when their photos have obviously been manipulated. Hurtful things can be said and people can shun other people.
The pressure or stress we feel to always do well is difficult. Being in such a competitive academic environment can be hard and you feel you have to keep up with people or take challenging classes to keep up with others. A lot of teens are always trying to compete in extracurricular activities too. Many people here are self-motivated, because they want to get to a good college and have a successful life.
Listening has to be a component. We have to reassure our peers that yes, it’s a difficult school and there’s a lot of things to keep up with, but also let them know they have resources available to them. Just making those connections with peers and teachers can mean success.
I started going to wellness (program) my freshman year during COVID. I didn’t know anyone when I got here. I was feeling lonely and having trouble making friends. My social anxiety was very heightened.
I came to see Miss Kym and she referred me to a Guardian Angel (one of the peer team members) and I really appreciated being able to talk to someone who had gone through the same things, who had that relatability to me, so then I wanted to
Most of the students I talk to are struggling socially. They might not have anyone to sit with at lunch. They might be too scared to try and make friends. I try to help them with their confidence, I try to give them strategies on how to make friends.
It’s wonderful how we are bringing light and awareness to mental health issues among young people, because we had an increase among teens during the past few years because of the pandemic. Social media is also one of the biggest causes of mental health issues. If you are feeling isolated, it just worsens your struggles.
Many mental health issues have been there, we just haven’t brought it out into the open. I don’t know how much people talked about social or generalized anxiety 20 to 30 years ago. We’ve seen so many people struggle with it and we’ve seen the devastating consequences of anxiety and depression that we just realize how much we need to talk about it today.
We are so fortunate to have a program like this. A lot of us feel alone in our struggles and it’s hard to reach out, but I think having a program where we show people that everyone goes through tough times, everyone has their own struggles, that’s what makes people feel they can reach out and get help, by knowing that they are not alone.
I’ve been raised in the Presbyterian Church and living a Christian life is important to me. It’s our job on earth to protect other children of God on earth. We are all his children, brothers and sisters, and we have the duty to show respect, compassion and empathy for another child of God. It’s our job on this earth to be beacons and extension of the love that Jesus gives to us.
Let’s walk together on the journey of healing. Not everyone that I talk to is a Christian. If they are, I want to let them know that God is helping them on this journey. But if they are not religious and don’t believe in God, I don’t want to force anything on them. I am a Christian, so no matter who I’m talking with I want to share that love with them. We don’t want others to feel loneliness or isolation. Everyone on this planet is one community, and part of being a Christian is making sure everyone feels love and everyone is cared for.