Thacher Mental Health?

How is the mental health among students at Thacher? How big of an issue is it in comparison to other schools? Is there good support from faculty and fellow students?

Calling @CaliMex !

Let’s start by addressing the elephant in the room: There is a mental health crisis among teens everywhere, especially the kind of privileged teens who attend pricey boarding schools. Teens from affluent backgrounds are now considered at risk, regardless of where they go to school.

Earlier this year I attended a presentation with Dr. Denise Pope who has authored books on the subject and is one of the founders of Challenge Success at Stanford. The picture she drew of overly-stressed kids was harrowing. I approached her afterwards to gain her perspective on boarding schools. When I told her that our kid attended Thacher, she smiled and said that Thacher has a better handle on things than most. She explained that many of the things teens need more of for the sake of their mental health – face-to-face social time with peers (and less phone time), meaningful work, regular exercise, good sleep, time in nature, and down time-- are things that are baked right into the Thacher experience.

We chose Thacher because when we visited, the kids seemed happier than the kids we saw elsewhere. Yes, there is a lot of academic pressure (the standards are high!) but there is a strong sense of community, too. Their program has lots of built-in elements to help with mental health: The sense of purpose that comes from being responsible for a horse (and the camaraderie it builds with classmates as you figure out how to do it), the positive risk taking that is part of the robust outdoors and riding programs, and the many ways the community is purposefully knit together (prefect groups, advisory groups, formal dinners with assigned seats so everyone gets to know each other, Open House every Saturday night at the head’s house, which pretty much everyone attends.) It is a very warm, welcoming, and supportive community.

There are lots of mental health resources available, too: There is a full time counselor and additional part-time resources in case kids need to talk to someone. (Many kids see counselors weekly, including now, via Zoom.) The primary counselor is a former Thacher student who understands the community and its particular stressors well. There are also weekly Yoga and mindfulness classes. Finally, there is regular evening programming in the dorms where they learn about and discuss everything from nutrition and eating disorders, to sexuality, to the importance of sleep and time management, etc.

Lest they forget about the options open to them, every single week the kids get an email message reminding them of the resources at their disposal if they are feeling stressed.

Having said all of that, most Thacher students come from the very well-to-do zip codes where anxiety, depression, and eating disorders are most rampant and the kids are very aware of that. Being Thacher kids, a couple of them took it upon themselves last year to survey their peers to better understand mental health issues at Thacher. They shared their findings with the school and the administration subsequently made a full-time hire to support mental health. This year, a couple of seniors made mental health the subject of their final capstone research presentation or Senior Exhibition. Their presentation included recommendations for the school. (One of their findings, unfortunately, was that many teens are ashamed or embarrassed to seek out professional help). I don’t think this means that there are more mental health issues at Thacher than at other schools. I believe it means that Thacher kids feel more of a sense of agency and/or that they are more forthcoming in talking openly about mental health. Indeed, during a different presentation on a different topic, one of the seniors commented that there has been great progress at Thacher in that there is far less stigma attached to going to speak to a counselor now than there was when she was a freshman.

I don’t think that sense of progress is a coincidence, btw. The school continues to seek out the advice of former board member (and Thacher alumna) Christine Carter who is considered an expert on two topics: happiness and adolescence. (Her books are worth checking out, btw.)


@janehoya may have more to add, too.

If you are able to visit or participate in a virtual information session next fall you will have the opportunity to learn more about Thacher’s approach. Their admissions presentation is quite unlike the presentations at other schools. Here’s the description from the website:

“What does the research tell us about how we can most effectively help teenagers thrive, succeed on their own terms, and ultimately become their best selves? And how do Thacher’s one-of-a-kind program, culture, and community create the conditions for that kind of growth? A member of our admission team will break down how we integrate positive risk-taking, a supportive peer culture, relationship-centered learning, the balance of happiness and high-achievement, and much more to create a rich environment in which high schoolers flourish. Afterward, there will be plenty of time for additional questions and answers—so fire away!”

Anything I add to @CaliMex’s post will be superfluous as she covered everything so thoroughly and eloquently, but I will say that my only complaint regarding Thacher and mental health (and by extension, academic performance) is that I feel lights-out should be earlier. For Freshman lights-out is 10:30 pm Sunday through Thursday and weekends lights-out don’t exist, according to my son, but wifi cuts off at at 11:30 pm. Having said that, when compared to other boarding schools Thacher’s lights-out time seems early, though parents at other schools may report otherwise.

I don’t know about other boarding schools, but at Thacher, when classes are on campus, they don’t start until 8:30 am.

That means kids could hypothetically sleep in until 8:15 am on weekdays, which I know would not have been possible if our child had attended one of our local private or public high schools given the earlier starts and commute!

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SMS’s lights out times are at 10:30 for III form and 11pm for upper classes and on weekends are midnight for all.

@Leslieknope20 - curious: is there a reason why you are specifically focused on mental health at Thacher? Does it have a reputation one way or the other?

Late starts are the one good thing about remote learning. Kiddo’s earliest class is at 9:00. The school consciously shifted the schedule after getting feedback. Kiddo stays up after us, but can sleep later too.

Fwiw, at Cate normally lights out are 10:30 for 9th/10th and 11:00 for 11/12th. Or something like that. And I believe classes start at 8:00. From what I gather, it is hard enough enforcing 10:30. Earlier lights out would be hard on teen brains. They are wired to stay up late.

I agree that teen mental health is a huge issue at all of these schools. All schools seem committed to improving how they address it. Definitely something worth talking about with each school you are researching.

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Three points:

  1. Thacher's ethos is to examine itself critically every year to ask how it can do better. It is a transparent, unfiltered, and honest process and one of the school's best characteristics. The mental health of the kids and the community is a principal focus. When you look for a boarding school, I recommend that you focus on whether the school sees itself as a work in progress to be constantly improved or is more of a "we've always done it this way," usually cloaked in the guise of tradition. Count me as an advocate for the former.
  2. Every other year, Thacher and many of the best boarding schools across the U.S. participate in the Independent School Gender Project. While the focus of this Project tends toward the mental health and personal growth of young women in the community, there is a ton of analysis of mental health markers generally at the participating schools. Unfortunately, the ISGP doesn't like to share its school results publicly because it's more of an internal exercise, but usually some digging can produce the results for your review. Thacher does extraordinarily well at maintaining a healthy community and ensuring, especially, that young women grow into happy, self-empowered and self-confident leaders.
  3. As a prior poster has noticed, Thacher has two huge mental health advantages: (1) its climate (Southern California) where the sun, the orange blossoms, the smell of sage etc, lift kids spirits 24x7 and (2) the emphasis on the outdoors where kids learn to camp, to ride horses, to navigate and appreciate the natural world. That doesn't mean the academic pressure isn't there, it definitely is. You must be prepared to stretch yourself well past what you knew your limits to be, but Thacher's "outdoors" is an incredibly effective and restorative offset, a mental health balm of the best kind.
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At any school, I think you should be looking for:

Mental health formally addressed in classroom setting (just as you would approach education around substance use and sex) with the goal of helping students recognize what is healthy, what self-care is, what resources are available, and destigmatizing issues around it.

Teacher training in recognizing and dealing with students experiencing mental health issues.

At least 1 full time mental health professional on campus at health services and a network of local practices for students needing regular care.

General culture of openness around mental health.

As a parent, you know your child. You should pick an environment where you think they will thrive. That differs from kid to kid, whether it’s being in an environment that will support gender identity exploration, the level of competition in and out of the classroom, etc. And above all, if you have specific concerns before you enroll, ask the school!!!

@gardenstategal Is the suggestion that there be at least one full-time mental health professional a best practice regardless of school size?
Thacher has 260 kids, one full-time professional, plus others on hand to provide counseling. Wouldn’t that same number be insufficient at a larger school?

RE: Culture of openness/willingness to discuss mental health at Thacher…
Out of approximately 60 seniors, at least 11 chose to tackle mental-health related topics for their capstone, Senior Exhibition presentations. The topics were quite varied and included Adolescence and Nature (why wilderness and nature experiences impact teen mental health), Epigenetics and Mental Health in the African-American Community, How Mental Health Affects Division I College Athletes, Social Media and its Effect on the Mental Health of Teens, the Flow State, the Social Implications and Efficacy of Psychedelic Therapy, and several others.

At least one is for any school. That’s why I said at least. Larger schools may have/need more. But many schools also have relationship(s) with outside provider(s), so the 1 (or 2 or 3) functions as a professional coordinator of services. This is often more effective because it allows kids to be matched to professionals who click with them and who may have expertise in a particular area (and who take their insurance. Ugh!)

There’s a huge difference between needing someone to talk to occasionally and someone who can work with the community in a time of crisis (i.e., death of a classmate) and someone providing continuing care. I know this is a very tough balancing act for both BS and colleges.

Overall, I think most institutions are catching up with the need, but it’s definitely catch up. The need is immense and young people are, on average, very stressed. Not about the same things…

There were some very negative comments from Thacher students on NIche regarding its approach to mental health. More negative comments as a % than most other peer schools, and far more than Cate.

For example:

I am begging you, do not send your kid here if you care any bit about their mental health at all. Almost every student here has repeatedly brought up the issue to administration in countless forms and repeatedly the administration has continued to do absolutely nothing about it. They even tried to solve this whole issue by hiring one more part-time counselor that comes one hour a week! The administration is heartless and obviously knows nothing of the teenage mind. I am a student here, I am going through the worst depression of my life, all of my friends are too, yet we are more than halfway through the year. Two teachers at the beginning of the year came to try to talk about what I’m going through, both said that they would follow up with me often, both have failed to even mention having a talk since then.

5 months ago
Overall Experience

I have recently lost all hope and trust in the Thacher School. There is no room for growth here, I do not feel accepted, and I do not feel supported by my peers nor the faculty. This school treats mental health like its a joke when the culture that Thacher creates has caused countless panic attacks and even suicide attempts. I feel a great deal of shame to call myself a Thacher student and spend my time here counting down the days until graduation.

Feb 12 2019
Overall Experience

Privileged kids are at risk for mental health issues. That we know. So it is no surprise that there would be students with mental health issues at high schools that enroll students from wealthy families.

What we don’t know: Would the first reviewer be any better off at a different boarding school? It is entirely possible that they would be suffering even more if they were at a different school.

We do know that Thacher has a full-time staffer focused on mental health, so at the very least, the reviewer’s facts are not quite accurate. And we know that students also have access to programming around mental health issues and wellness, regular mindfulness classes, a robust outdoors program that provides opportunities for positive risk-taking and time in nature, access to healthy, organic food, etc, a positive peer culture, etc.

The bottom line: This poor kid is suffering. But they might have suffered even more at a school with fewer supports.

BTW: If you look at the Niche reviews more closely, you will notice that last year’s reviews are anomalous. It was a bumpy year. The popular and much-beloved head of school, Michael Mulligan, retired after 30 years of service to Thacher. A handful of students, especially seniors, felt abandoned and were resentful of the new administration. Some of them took it out on Niche. The new head of school (and first woman in that role) has instituted many positive changes and over time, people will come to appreciate her on her own terms instead of comparing her to her mentor and former boss at the pinnacle of his career. (Michael Mulligan was one of the boarding school world’s most admired heads of school ever).

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Here’s a quote from another Niche review that resonated with our family’s experience:

“You might find schools with stronger athletics or arts programs and there are other schools with equally rigorous academics, but you’ll never find a community as tightly-bonded and supportive as Thacher’s. I have never felt as supported in taking risks and challenging myself as I have felt at Thacher. It is an extraordinarily special place with a unique culture.”

Indeed, who knows how much insight the Thacher student reviews and comments provide, especially if it was found to be true that the school pressured kids to bump its ratings for Niche:

Quoting an alleged Thacher student, on Niche:

“I am limited to 1000 characters: Admissions gathered a group of seniors and strongly encouraged them to leave 5 out of 5 stars in their Niche review. Interpret that on your own.”

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@SportyPrep That is an odd allegation. Did they put a gun to the students’ heads and threaten to withhold their diplomas if their reviews weren’t glowing enough, too?

Seriously: If you are curious about Thacher, go visit the school once the campus is open and ask any questions you’d like. It isn’t perfect and it isn’t for the faint of heart. There is as much of a focus on character as there is on academics. Putting 14-year olds in charge of taking care of and managing a 2000-pound beast is a leap of faith in the ability of young teens to learn to put the needs of others first. (Wilderness camping reinforces the lesson as kids come together to take care of each other.)

Thacher is NOT the right school for kids who are looking for a more college-like experience. But it offers great preparation for college and life.

Bottom line re Niche: I would advise people not to put a lot of weight on reviews online. And that’s true whether you are looking at restaurant reviews on Yelp or boarding school reviews on Niche! You never know who is posting or why…

Mental health coverage varies wildly with health care plans. Two kids at one school, both on parents’ plan, may have very different options available to them locally, and this is a challenge. I suspect that most schools step in as well as they can, but this could be like asking the school nurse to provide post injury PT because insurance doesn’t cover it. And while kids at all income levels struggle with mental health issues, the less well off ones are most likely to have limited options for dealing with it. Bare bones insurance and no $ to go out of plan.

With the exception of kids with horses? My kids are up everyday at 6:20AM, to finish mucking before 7:30. They then shower and have breakfast with peers. Sleep deprivation is a real issue for freshman, and older kids have wandering in non-covid times that equals bedtimes in excess of midnight.