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Amidst Pandemic, Deerfield Addresses Mental Health During the Winter
Lily Zeng '22 Communications Director
February 21, 2021

Winter term at Deerfield is notorious for the various challenges it presents. Facing often frigid temperatures and decreased sunlight, many find the season to be long and dark. This academic year, the restrictions brought upon by the COVID-19 pandemic have exacerbated mental health concerns. In response, multiple groups have taken initiative to bolster campus morale and bring more focused attention upon student mental health.

The Deerfield counseling program has taken initiative this winter in creating a student advising committee. “We decided we don’t want to be doing mental health to the student body,” explained Director of Counseling Dr. Josh Relin. We want to be doing mental health with the student body in a sort of feedback loop, hearing more in real time what’s going on in terms of trends and needs of the students and how our services are being perceived.”

A particularly important aspect of the committee will be its focus on supporting students who identify as BIPOC or LBGTQ+. Dr. Relin hopes for the committee to include students belonging to those communities so they might assist the counseling department in filling in any “blind spots” it previously held with regard to amplifying voices and promoting inclusivity. 

The idea for a student committee had begun circulating a couple years prior, but Dr. Relin said many aspects of the recent national climate pushed the idea to become a reality this year. “With all the different forces and current events going on in the world right now, it just seemed like the moment was right,” he said. In addition to consulting with students, the counselors also hold frequent professional development sessions which integrate the needs of students from marginalized communities.

Student leaders are also seeking ways to more effectively support their community. In January, Dr. Margaret Brown, Dr. Susan Watson, and Deerfield counselors facilitated a virtual mental health training session for Peer Counselors and Proctors. In the meeting, the student leaders shared fall term experiences that were challenging for their peers, and discussed how those lessons might equip them to handle potential difficulties of the winter. They also reviewed important strategies to care for themselves and others. Dr. Brown listed examples like “knowing when to check-in and check-out” with others, and “striving for balance over a period of time, maybe thinking about life over the course of a week.” 

While the Winter Term schedule has presented challenges for 9th grade group meetings with Peer Counselors, Dr. Brown emphasized a spirit of experimentation. Groups may shift from their more curriculum-based meetings to more casual check-ins to assess well-being in a more laid-back, hopefully more effective setting. Furthermore, the Peer Counselors are seeking out ways to continue to be a visible and inspiring force on campus, such as looking to present at future school meetings.

Peer Counselor Cam Howe ‘22 understands the difficulties that may come with this term. She hopes to approach her work with an open mind and the acknowledgement that many people, including herself, struggle with the inevitable ups and downs of the season. “The same way emotions are fluctuating with the time of year, so will the way people cope with changes in their mental health. Rather than trying to rush to a goal of a resolution, it’s just important to really listen to what someone is going through, and continue to check in so they’ll know you have their support through the season,” said Howe.

The various protocols of Healthy Deerfield largely center around the idea of dorm “squads,” and colder temperatures may lead students to spend more time in their dorms. In response, Teaching Assistants Arianne Evans ’16 and Brian Persons (’16?), and Residential Assistant Sarah Dancer ’16 are seeking out new ways to brighten these living spaces for students by distributing fun supplies and decorations for each hall.

Brainstorming for this initiative began over winter break. LED lights were among the first ideas to be approved and brought to action, and students returned to campus to find their halls already adorned with the new lighting. “As a person who had LED lights myself in high school, I just wanted to make halls more lively, and high-energy spaces that feel more like home, versus just a blank corridor,” said Ms. Evans. Many dorm leaders also took the opportunity to submit specific decorations they wanted, like life-sized wall decal stickers, from Spongebob characters to famous athletes. Board games and projectors were also distributed to each hall.

Ms. Evans said about these additions, “We wanted something to contribute to student well-being on weekdays, so they’re not just waiting for weekend activities. It feels like a more sustainable approach to student mental health.”

TA Treasure Hunts have also been a popular weekend event on campus, recurring every Friday nights in the Athletic Center. Facilitated by Teaching Assistants, the activity is meant to encourage students to spend more time with those outside their squads, and offers prizes such as magnetic dartboards and beanie hats. Robbie Hua ‘24 was among those who participated in the first Treasure Hunt this winter. He felt that the experience was rewarding, most importantly allowing for the opportunity to reconnect with friends. “I hadn’t talked to those people since fall, so it was fun to get to see them again,” said Hua. “We actually ended up going two weeks in a row.”

These TA and RA campus initiatives are funded with the support of the Student Life Office, which has also facilitated its own programs. Ms. Amie Creagh recognized how lessons from the school’s fall term reopening have profoundly shaped the administration’s decisions for the winter, including the consideration of how to better facilitate student mental health. 

Hoping to improve the overall student experience this winter, the SLO has been hard at work. New furniture has been placed in locations like the Hess and the Athletics Complex. The dining pavilion is decorated with dorm banners, and lighting designed to simulate the Hogwarts Castle from Harry Potter. Squad skate times encourage more extensive use of the new outdoor rink, a particularly significant addition to campus this year.

Community feedback for the rink has been largely positive. “The lights around the rink look beautiful at night,” said Antonia Forero ‘22. “Winter at Deerfield usually feels super repetitive and uneventful, so these small things that change up our environment definitely make a difference.” Additionally, events like rink broomball tournaments, which do not require skating experience, reflect the goal of the administration to create a space that can be meaningful to a broader range of students.

 In this light, Ms. Creagh described her interpretation of mental health at Deerfield as requiring “attentiveness.” “Some folks are naturally more psyched about the rink than others but I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see kids who have never been on the ice before, just going for it,” she said. We want to support those kids who already like winter and [are] trying to leverage that love while supporting those who struggle in the winter,” said Ms. Creagh.

Alongside the ice rink, weekend food trucks have been a winter highlight for students. The Student Planning Committee (SPC) and Coordinator of Student Activities Mr. Brian Barbato arranged the food trucks partially in response to the closing of the Greer. SPC Member Chelsea Davis ‘23 emphasized the way accessibility to food can positively impact those on campus. “Since a lot of things have been taken away from us already, the food trucks might bring some of those comfort foods to people,” said Davis. “It’s a way to bring a little extra happiness to campus.”

While providing delicious food, the food trucks aim to bring together people as well. Anne Duong ‘22 identified the food trucks as her favorite weekend activity because the opportunities they provide to see other people. She said, “Getting food from the food truck actually gives me incentive to go outside.. which is when I often see my friends and socialize for a bit, too.” Davis added, “Waiting in lines isn’t that great all the time but there is a sense of solidarity in waiting in that cold with others… especially to get hot food in the cold.” 

While wintertime may mean a variety of things to the Deerfield student body, Dr. Relin believes that reflecting upon mental health this season can be beneficial to all. He said, “There’s all these countervailing forces that cause us to shut down and get tired, so there’s more of a headwind to stay in touch with those sources that give our lives sustenance.” 

The various branches of leadership at Deerfield embrace this importance of caring for ourselves and each other, and hope that their efforts this term are able to reach as many people as possible, whether it be through a light-hearted game of Monopoly in the dorm for one student, or, for another, a discussion with the counselors about how to maximize mental health support.