Oak Park and River Forest High School added wellness workshops to its school schedule this year with a goal of helping students better manage their mental health while simultaneously managing school work, activities and complex social lives.

The wellness workshops were created with the intention of helping students manage stress. The workshops consist of one period of meditation and class discussion about what stresses students out — whether in or outside of school.

Lynda Parker, OPRF’s principal for two years, says the idea paired with the school’s committee on multi-tiered support for social, emotional, and behavioral issues. They wanted to show support for students in order to address the mental health concerns from both students and teachers that became very prevalent during COVID-19 and Zoom learning. Parker said, “the thought is to take a pause during the school day and to have a conversation about the topic of the month.”

After each workshop a survey is sent to students to get feedback on what they found most beneficial and offer comments for the administration. The workshops will continue to take place once a month for the foreseeable future, said Parker.

The principal said students have reported that the workshops have benefited them. It has given them a space to talk about their worries with other students who understand what they too are going through.

The workshops take place during regularly scheduled classes and are led by teachers who may or may not have expertise in leading such discussions.

Joseph DiMaso an 18-year-old senior at OPRF says, “these activities can be helpful but it just appears that some teachers just don’t want to do it.”

OPRF has taken other actions to support students and their mental health needs. The school allows for mental wellness days to count towards excused absences so that students aren’t “punished” for taking care of their mental health.

The goal of the wellness workshops is not just to allow a space for students to take a pause and breathe but to take these skills and put them to use in real life circumstances –s whether submitting college applications or right before a job interview. Coping strategies taught include 5-4-3-2-1, square breathing, and Being Your Own Best Friend.

Asked if the school should address underlying school-based stressors such as homework overloads or test-taking anxiety, Parker said, the wellness workshops are intended to teach students how to handle their emotions in overwhelming situations.

Needless to say there is still progress to make. Some students have requested that the wellness workshops take place during advisory periods, which for those who don’t know, are akin to homeroom. Having these workshops take place during advisory would give students the opportunity to be with students they have known since freshman year while not missing out on academic time that they will have to make up later.

DiMaso adds that “mental health activities are on the right track to consider mental health as being important at OPRF.”

Ashley Brown is an OPRF student and a contributing reporter for Wednesday Journal.

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