New alumni wellness survey promotes mental health awareness


Fareen Dhuka

Director of Clinical Services Tesa Stark and Medical Director Scott Dorfman sent a wellness survey to SJS alumni.

Fareen Dhuka and Ryan Chang

When his son called home from college about helping his friends diagnosed with anxiety and severe depression, Medical Director Scott Dorfman realized just how much mental and behavioral health issues among high school and college students have escalated in recent years.

“It made me think about how common these experiences must be for other St. John’s students when they graduate,” Dorfman said. “I think it is important to provide education and tools for our students to better understand and navigate these challenges.”

On Feb. 11, the SJS Wellness Team, which Dorfman co-directs with Lower School Counselor Cynthia Powell and Director of Clinical Services Tesa Stark, sent a mental and behavioral health survey to approximately 600 St. John’s graduates from the classes of 2015-2018. The anonymous Survey is administered by the Healthy Minds Research Group from the University of Michigan, the country’s leading research group for mental health issues in colleges and universities. It covers topics such as depression, loneliness, anxiety, alcohol and substance abuse and promotes seeking help from mental health professionals.

According to Dorfman, St. John’s is the first secondary school to use the Healthy Minds Survey. The School intends to use the Survey to better understand students’ needs and direct resources towards education, support and programs.

The Wellness Team was reorganized two years ago to include input from across school disciplines. The Team offers parent coffees featuring local and national experts on a variety of mental and behavioral health issues. These parent education coffees are held on the first Wednesday of every month.

Additional educational programs for parents are offered in the evenings, such as the ADHD Symposium last fall as well as visiting authors Michele Borba and Wendy Mogel. The Wellness Team also offers wellness education for students in Assemblies, such as Peter Fluor’s talk to Upper School students last fall.

“All of this is really just a way of improving awareness in our community,” Dorfman said. “We have a three-fold community of students, faculty and parents.”

Stark expressed her praise for not only the wellness initiative, but for responses received from the student body.

“Over the last three years, I’ve felt really good about students’ responses toward the wellness initiative,” Stark said. “They’re talking about it, writing about it and really focusing on how to make their lives more well-balanced.”

Although it is not a new initiative, the Wellness Team has recently started hosting events related to behavioral and mental health issues within the community and hopes to further enforce awareness. According to Dorfman, one of the main challenges of the wellness initiative and the alumni survey is overcoming the stigmas surrounding mental health in the community.

“Destigmitization has always been a challenge at St. John’s,” Dorfman said. “There is a stigma put on behavioral and mental health issues — people know they’re there, but they don’t want to talk about them. If you’re not aware of it, you don’t address it.”