We have a standing item on our Leadership Team agenda on risk, so we can try to stay on top of incidents and whether or not we need to update our policies or practices. We often come back to what we consider one of our biggest risks, and that is the mental health and well-being of all of our students. Lakefield College School is a community of 382 teenagers, and the world is an increasingly complex and scary place for teens.
- In a wall street journal article, The American Association of Pediatrics warns that too much social-media use can lead teenagers to depression and anxiety. Girls today collect “likes” instead of making friends. They can be devastated by a cruel text or a tepid reaction to a selfie. Long before they hold hands with a date, they are exposed to online pornography and misogynistic messages. Modern girls are never truly alone and never truly with others. In a 2018 national health survey, girls reported the highest levels of loneliness on record.
- The author of The Coddling of the American Mind writes about a mental health crisis. Kids born after 1995 have really high rates of anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicide. Suicide rates in the US have gone up 25% for boys and 70% for girls.
Schools – as well as universities and colleges – are all working hard to support student mental health and well-being. We are all updating our health care systems (The Well@LCS), adding programs (We are excited by our positive education and well-being program called Thrive), encouraging student-led clubs (Jack.org) and recognizing special days (Bell Let’s Talk Day).
But I have been thinking about this in a new way thanks in part to a presentation I heard at the CAIS Heads and Chairs Conference. Michael Unger challenged us to create opportunities for teenagers to take responsibility for others in more meaningful ways, to become more intentional about cultivating empathy and strengthening connection.
And this takes us back to our trees…
In my research, I’ve become fascinated by roots.
A few facts:
- It is a myth that roots run deep. The most common depth of roots is only about two to two and a half meters.
- Roots are typically – and surprisingly – shallow and wide-spreading, extending radially in any direction.
- While genetic characteristics of a tree play some part in a rooting pattern, soil conditions are of overriding importance.
I don’t know about you but as a former English teacher, I cannot help but draw comparisons to our students. The lives of teens in terms of meaningful connections are shallow, perhaps even more so today with social media.
But I believe we can also be inspired by roots as we think about how to support students in navigating this complex world.
In The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben shares ground-breaking new discoveries about the interconnectedness of trees. He writes that – Much like human families, trees live together in a community, communicate with each other, and support each other, sharing nutrients with those who are sick or growing or struggling and creating an ecosystem that mitigates the impact of extremes of heat and cold, for the whole group. As a result of such interactions, trees in a family or community are protected and can live to be very old. Wohlleben cites evidence of a 400 year-old beech tree that was actually being kept alive by neighboring beech trees. In contrast, solitary trees have a tough time of it and in most cases die much earlier than those in a group. He believes that where once we saw trees as isolated individuals, we now perceive a wood as a place of multiple and sophisticated interrelationships, many of them operating deep beneath the earth.
This inspires me to think about additional strategies for addressing today’s mental health crisis. How can we help teens to form more meaningful relationships? How can we help them understand the need to authentically give to others and form community? Can we be so bold as to wonder if less focus on self will help to strengthen self?
I am inspired by our campus – the Grove – not only as a community of trees, but as this incredibly alive underground root system, one of intertwined stories, lives, experiences and communities, and one that teaches that in order to help yourself, you need to connect with and help others.
May our trees remind us to get to know others, to connect with them meaningfully.
May our trees remind us that we are part of a community, and we have a responsibility to care for others.