The “Alums Who Never Left” series introduces us to individuals who have a unique relationship to the school: All are TJ alums who are currently serving the school community. Greg Myers, TJ ’98, has been an FCPS school psychologist for ten years, and for the last four years, he has split his time between Holmes MS and TJ. Newsworthy set out to learn not only about Myers’ career trajectory and unique alumni perspective but also about mental health initiatives at TJ and how all of us can better support our young people.
Q: Could you describe your work as TJ’s school psychologist and how it differs from your work at Holmes MS?
A: “The majority of my time at TJ is spent providing direct counseling and crisis intervention services to our students. With that can come a great deal of consultation — with school counselors, parents, teachers, outside providers, etc. — as part of ongoing problem-solving. Some weeks, my time is consumed by the implementation of a prevention or awareness program (e.g., Stress Less Laugh More Week, Mental Wellness Week). In addition, I typically complete a few psychological evaluations per year as part of the special education eligibility process. At Holmes, the vast majority of my time is spent completing psychological evaluations, at a rate almost ten-fold that of TJ’s, and participating in all the meetings that come with that. I also provide counseling mandated through IEPs and provide crisis intervention services.”
Q: Could you briefly explain what goes on during those two special program “weeks” you mentioned?
A: “During Mental Wellness Week — typically held in February — students encourage each other with daily uplifting suggestions, mental health tips, and activities focused on reducing stigma. The school also runs depression screening for freshmen and juniors that teaches students how to spot the signs of depression and suicidal thinking. [Read about a new Active Minds program, Motivational Messages, in tjTODAY.]
“Stress Less Laugh More (SLLM) Week takes place before AP tests begin, and includes days that feature such stress relievers as yoga, meditation, and therapy dogs. SLLM was pioneered locally in 2012 at Langley HS, McLean HS, and TJ in partnership with the Josh Anderson Foundation (JAF), a non-profit founded by the family of a teen who died by suicide, that works with schools and agencies to provide suicide prevention education, resources, and funding. My ongoing work with JAF has led to their further support of TJ projects, and since 2013 I have served on the group’s board of directors as their schools-liaison member.
“These initiatives and others are coordinated by TJ’s Active Minds Club, which I sponsor.”
Q: How did TJ’s Active Minds Club get started?
A: “Active Minds is a national organization that encourages mental health awareness and has chapters on many college campuses. TJ’s Active Minds Club, SLLM, and our partnership with JAF all got their start in Spring 2012, and I’d be lying if I told you that was all me. A group of student leaders — Active Minds Club first President Saniya Suri, TJ ’13, along with Nisha Swarup, TJ ’14, and Allison Chou, TJ ’13, — approached me with ideas initially. I was thrilled to support such a student-led passion project so I happily contributed my creative thinking to the brainstorm that led to our first SLLM. From there I sponsored our Active Minds Club charter and we became one of the first high school clubs in the country.
“A recent initiative that was entirely student-founded and is entirely student-run is the Club’s website, TJ Mind Matters. My goal has always been for the students to design and implement their own awareness campaigns and activities from their unique perspective, with only occasional consultation with me regarding the sensitive nature of mental health issues and the way they are best publicly communicated. This website reveals the tremendous student energy around mental health and wellness. Launched in September 2015, it’s a collaborative effort of the Active Minds Club and TJ’s Student Government Association. It features links to helpful mental health resources, a “TJ to TJ” blog with motivational videos, and an introduction to a small group of TJ students who have made themselves available as supportive listeners. The site’s goal is to transform the Club from the sponsor of special events into a constant presence, in order to create a more supportive school community.”
Q: Recently it seems that students have become more comfortable speaking about their own mental health struggles and offering to help others (See Alumni Day Senior Panel in this issue). To what do you attribute this growth?
A: “I suppose it was inevitable that we’d eventually have a more open dialogue on mental health, but I think this is more a result of national and local efforts towards stigma reduction than a lucky development. There’s been a proliferation of student-focused activities, like FCPS’s Community Conversation on Teen Stress and JAF’s Teen-to-Teen Summit. In addition, there are educational programs like Acknowledge, Care, Tell (ACT) and SOS depression screenings, which actually teach students about what mental illnesses look like and how to help others. It is so important for us as a community to train our staff and students to identify students in crisis and intervene. These programs also help reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness by spreading messages through slogans like “1 in 4,” referring to the statistic that roughly one in four American adults experience mental illness in a given year, and “silence hurts us all,” referring to the harmful effects of failing to talk about mental health problems openly, like we do for other health problems. Whenever I get the chance to directly address groups of students, I remind them how to turn to their counselors for help and I also make a point of debunking the myth that doing so will adversely affect their college prospects.
“It is heartening to see students saying helpful things to each other and encouraging a friend to seek professional help when needed, but I think there’s more work to be done. I think that TJ students, who are so capable in so many domains, have a natural reluctance to ask for help. So we need continued training through programs like Youth Mental Health First Aid and Kognito’s at-risk training sessions, which teach faculty, staff, and students to recognize the signs of distress and what they can do to help. I suspect that our students, despite becoming more advanced in their academic knowledge year after year, are not as well-developed emotionally and personally, with less effective coping skills for life’s inevitable challenges. This is why we push research-supported elements of good mental health during our Mental Wellness Week each year.”
Q: Let’s back up a bit. When did you decide to become a psychologist, and in particular a school psychologist?
A: “Halfway through college I decided to stop forcing myself to be interested in the courses required for the pre-med track and instead pursued the only major that I knew I was really interested in: Psychology. When I graduated, I knew two things: I wanted a career in psychology, and it would require a graduate degree. But I had no idea which discipline to pursue. So I took a year to mull things over, volunteering at a camp doing environmental education with school-age students. It was only during that year that I even discovered that school psychologists existed! It made total sense to me because I knew I loved working with students and I loved being in schools and in the education field.”
Q: What were you interested in when you were at TJ?
A: “I came for the sports! I was on the swim team and baseball team all four years. [Myers served as TJ’s Assistant Varsity Baseball Coach in 2014 and 2015. He is sitting out the 2016 baseball season in order to devote more time to his wife, Jessica Kingsley, TJ ’02(!), and first child, Reese, born in August. The family attended TJ’s Lunar New Year Celebration, photo this issue.] Academically, I loved the biological sciences (AP Bio, Marine Bio, Human Anatomy, Biotech lab) and thought I’d be going into medicine. I was also really into my friends. I remember how much I looked forward to our conversations at lunch every day and how I’d be traveling across Northern Virginia on the weekends just to hang out with friends!”
Q: Is being an alum an asset in your work?
A: “Well, I like to think that having been a TJ student gives me some instant credibility with students. Honestly, I’d say it generally holds true—not for every student, and to varying degrees—that students are pleasantly surprised when they hear I went to TJ. It doesn’t make their problems go away, but I think it makes them feel like I suddenly have at least the potential to fully understand what they’re going through. And if I can accomplish that—really understanding their situation—I’ve done the lion’s share of the work…sometimes it’s 100% of what was needed!”
Q: In February 2015, you gave a report at a PTSA meeting and also participated on a TJ Community Lunar New Year Celebration panel. On both occasions you stressed that parents need to set limits for their children. Can you explain what limits you’re talking about and why parents need to play an active role?
A: “Teaching our students how to set limits is one of the best things that we can do for them as parents and educators. Probably a great majority of our students are characterized either by their self-motivated nature or by their extreme extrinsic motivation (i.e. not a lot of lazy students at TJ!). Setting aside the latter concern that our students can be too fixated on achievement—which I do believe can greatly impact one’s mental health—our students seem quite prone to overloading themselves, to their own detriment. They need our assurance that they’re ‘doing enough’ and that things will be okay with a workload that is well-matched to their level of resiliency. They need our help prioritizing work, managing deadlines, recognizing when they are ‘burnt out’ and working inefficiently and need a break, etc. Yes, they are intelligent, but their prefrontal cortex is still very much developing—they’re still teenagers!
“Our youth survey data says that TJ students have low levels of risky behavior and high rates of healthy behavior, except when it comes to sleep and exercise. We have to teach limit-setting and healthy habits now, before they learn the hard way in college and beyond. Our students are building a resume. They know they need to be officers in the clubs, get the grades, they need to take the APs. But there’s a limit to the number of hours in a day. There is a well-established link between chronic sleep deprivation and depression and suicidal thoughts. Parents need to set a firm bedtime and an even firmer expectation that students won’t break that bedtime more than two days in a row. Students need parenting and guidance to set that limit. If week after week, a student continues to exceed the bedtime, that student is overloaded. Period.”
Q: What are the TJ community’s strengths, and how might it better harness those strengths to improve student mental health?
A: “So glad you asked! I’m often working with students and families who are experiencing significant stressors or mental health crises, so at times I lose sight of our strengths. Notwithstanding age-typical experiences, like pressure to conform and, yes, bullying, I think TJ is a tolerant place. Many students report feeling more accepted at TJ than they did in middle school. Many find their niche here, their ‘tribe’ as I’ve heard parents say. This is not to say students can’t return to their base schools and be happy, but for many, this high school experience is irreplaceable. Among other things, TJ really celebrates its multicultural makeup, most notably through iNite [multicultural performances hosted by Namaste, an 8th period club], but also through everyday relationships and nonjudgmental attitudes (well, as nonjudgmental as high-schoolers can be).
“A latent strength, ready to be tapped, is our collective knowledge of neuroscience as it applies to mental health. On the face of it, TJ students should be better equipped than any to both promote and receive such evidence-based messaging on what research tells us about being healthy people, but this is not happening effectively right now. Our community needs to double its efforts to educate our students about what research tells us about being resilient in the face of adversity. And I don’t mean how to sleep less and get more done. I mean exactly the opposite: knowing when to put yourself and your health first, ahead of achievement, grades and resume-building commitments. I think we’re graduating students whose vision of success in life is way too narrow.
“The conventional wisdom states that if you don’t follow the formula, you won’t get into a good college (and implies that you won’t have a good career, be successful, etc.) I know many TJ grads who not only had a very different college experience than they planned when they were at TJ, but who now see the particular college they attended as far less relevant to their success than other factors. I think we need brave parents and students who are willing to put health and personal development first, by taking on only reasonable workloads and pursuing elective courses and extra-curricular activities that are personally meaningful and foster the intellectual curiosity that should define TJ, rather than simply fulfilling assumed requirements for college admissions.”