This summer, Simone Biles’ public decision to put her mental health first and withdraw from Olympic competition was a great example to young women everywhere of the importance of taking care of themselves, both physically and emotionally. It highlighted well-being as part of a balanced life, something the staff at Saint Ursula Academy understand. They have vowed to help their students prioritize taking care of their mental health.
“Caring for yourself and your social-emotional health is integrated within everything we do here,” says Laura Roman, Director of Counseling. “It’s the norm, not something a student has to go out of their way to find.”
Saint Ursula’s counseling department includes seven counselors, which is one of the best student-to-counselor ratios available. These counselors provide comprehensive, individualized college and career planning to every girl. In addition, they have a staff member dedicated to freshmen transition, another to testing, and another to suicide prevention. There is also a resident support dog named Angelo.
The entire faculty and staff are trained in an emergency mental health intervention called Question, Persuade, Refer. It helps all adults know how to recognize signs of depression or a suicide crisis in students. “It’s not, ‘Oh, you’re distressed. Let me send you to the counselor,” says Roman. “We are all here to care for these girls.”
The school has a student life committee that consists of several adults. Roman is on the committee to represent counseling. They also have individual faculty representing community service learning, educational services, campus ministry, and equity and inclusion.
“This particular team has spent a lot of time reflecting on our advisory and homeroom program,” says principal Mari Thomas. She notes that they are refreshing that social-emotional homeroom experience to ensure that no student falls through the cracks. Their focus this year is on nurturing because data shows that students have been suffering from increased episodes of depression and grappling with personal struggles throughout the pandemic.
“We started the year with candid conversations about how you need to put that oxygen mask on yourself first before you help someone else. That self-care and ability to ask for help enable us to raise balanced young people who will be healthy and happy and make a difference,” says Thomas. “Despite having endured two years of a pandemic that disrupted their high school experience, our students are well equipped to be the best version of themselves.”
Last year at Saint Ursula, they piloted a program called the Freshman Seminar that targeted mental health education, social-emotional learning, as well as cultural intelligence. Each week, broaching a different topic, they discussed depression and anxiety, disordered eating and body image, stress management, and friendship.
Beazey Tierney, a student at Saint Ursula who was a freshman last year, appreciated the seminar. “It really normalized mental health, and that’s not done very often in society.” Her favorite seminar was on stress management. “I always worry about things I can’t control, and that week really helped me realize some things I need to let go of.”
The school also structures time for students to participate in clubs and organizations into their academic day, whether that be ultimate Frisbee, competitive crafting, or yoga.
“We created a time in the day for our girls to pause and spend time with friends,” says Thomas. “It’s a healthy model that shows our student population what we value.”
Though their focus is primarily on student growth, during the past 18 months, the leaders at Saint Ursula wanted to focus on their faculty and staff. They implemented something they call “Healthy at Work” virtual sessions. Held on Wednesday afternoons, it’s a chance to field questions and be together as a community.
“We’ve all experienced loss and heartache over the course of this pandemic,” says Thomas. “We didn’t want to lose sight of the fact that we need to care for our adults, too.”
Saint Ursula Academy is located at 1339 E. McMillan Street, Cincinnati, Ohio, 45206. For more information, visit saintursula.org or call 513-961-3410.