Wellness days support mental health

Oak Park and River Forest High School recently completed its third in a series of wellness days designed to improve the mental health of students.

Mental wellness days at OPRF introduce students to strategies meant to help them cope with the stress and anxiety of everyday life. Workshops have addressed motivation, managing stress and “thinking traps,” negative thought patterns that distort or exaggerate reality.

On the workshop days, which took place Oct. 20, Dec.1 and Jan. 26, classes were shortened to accommodate a specially designated period for the wellness activities. Classroom teachers lead the workshops with materials and support provided by Ginger Bencola, OPRF’s prevention and wellness coordinator.

The school has seen an increase in students struggling with depression and anxiety in recent years, according to Bencola. “The current set of wellness workshops or wellness days really came out of the mental health concerns we saw when we returned in person after the pandemic,” she said.

Bencola has been working at OPRF for eight years with a focus on social work and promoting mental wellness for teenagers. She worked as a social worker in and around Washington State, including Seattle, before settling down in Oak Park.

“The higher impact issues that I see are certainly, in recent years, impacts of the COVID 19 pandemic and the ever present pressures of social media,” she said.

Bencola went on to touch on the cultural aspects of life that have also taken a toll on teens’ mental well-being. “A lot of things are happening in our world like the increases in school shootings, racial violence” and divisive political language, she said.

The United States has seen a drastic increase in depression and anxiety in teens, according to the American Association of Pediatrics. The organization recommends that schools “increase implementation and sustainable funding of effective models of school-based mental health care.”

Some students have found OPRF’s mental wellness days helpful. Sophomore Chris Lewis-Green said that the mental wellness days have often helped “motivate me or give me a new perspective on my situation.” He has applied to his own life the strategies and exercises he learned throughout the metal wellness days, such as the breathing exercises and remembering not to “overthink everything.”

Although Lewis-Green has seen some classmates feel dislike towards the mental wellness workshops, in his view, “They’ve helped a lot. You know, it gave me new visions on what I want to do and how to calm myself down and relax.”

Senior Asha Puri said she doesn’t find these times beneficial for her or her peers because, “They want us to open up, but in my classes I have people that I don’t feel the most comfortable with, and therefore I don’t feel like I can open up to.” She also said because each student is struggling with their own mental health, generalizing a curriculum of exercises isn’t applicable to all students.

Through anonymous polling Bencola and her team conducted, they found that some students felt mental wellness days “will make a positive impact on our school.” Another student said, “I loved the time to just be supported by my classmates about my struggles staying motivated.”

As the 2022-2023 school year heads into its last few months, the students, faculty, and staff will watch as the mental wellness workshops continue to develop and become more familiar to the school.

Slide from Jan. 26 wellness presentation