Wellness week in the age of a pandemic


Devin Allard-Neptune and Emily Sun

At a time when self care is more important than ever, the school has come together to relieve stress during Wellness Week. Through online workshops, a virtual assembly, and videos from faculty, the tradition that usually exists in person has transferred online.

“Wellness Week was created because mental health and the overall well-being of students at Horace Mann is something that is really important and not talked about enough,” Wellness Initiative Club (WIC) Co-Leader Natalie Baer (12) said. 

The coronavirus pandemic has heightened the necessity of Wellness Week. “Making sure that students feel like HM is there for them is more important now than it usually would be,” Baer said.

Since September, the WIC and members of Counseling and Guidance have met regularly to generate ideas and potential themes for Wellness Week 2020; they eventually decided to focus the week on stress, WIC Co-Leader Emily Marks (11) said.

When moving Wellness Week online, the committee brainstormed new initiatives, created Zoom workshops, and reworked the format of the assembly, Marks said. The theme for the week expanded to include pertinent information about wellness under quarantine, psychologist Dr. Ian Pervil said.

When selecting this year’s speaker, the committee wanted to find someone accessible to students, Bown said. They decided on Dr. Ali Mattu, a clinical psychologist who specializes in treating anxiety. 

Mattu had previously spoken at the school when he was invited by the WIC, he said. “He seemed perfect because he was funny, casual, and charismatic,” Bown said. “He also had a lot of important stuff to share about managing anxiety which we thought a lot of people could benefit from.”

In the assembly, Dr. Mattu spoke about his life while under quarantine, and panel members from the WIC and Counseling and Guidance asked him questions about stress that students had submitted.

Dr. Mattu described how the pandemic has raised society’s stress levels; people might function worse and experience varying symptoms of mental illnesses and trauma. However, students can turn stress into a positive force if they uncover the factors behind it and communicate that to others, he said.

“I get stressed about little things, but now I realize that I can control them,” Ana Aguilar (9) said. “It’s good to focus on that when we can’t control what’s going on in the outside world.”

To end the webinar, Dr. Mattu provided the community with ways to alleviate anxiety, including creating a physical and psychological distance between work and relaxation, lowering one’s body temperature, and briefly submerging one’s face in cold water. 

Students may also learn more about wellness from workshops; after the transfer online, this year’s committee planned to reduce the number of workshops because they didn’t want to add to people’s stress, Pervil said.

Nevertheless, many members of the community are still participating, Pervil said. “People have said they want to do things, and people we’ve reached out to have been so excited about participating, that we have increased the number [of workshops] as the week has gone on.”

For example, Upper Division Director of Student Activities Caroline Bartels invited students to join her daily yoga practice, and teachers from Athletics and Health and Physical Education Departments ran workout sessions consisting of isometric exercises, pilates, and more. 

“If you’re stressed out, trying to stretch and do something physical each day is a good idea,” Physical Education teacher Rawlins Troop said. 

Dance teacher Denise DiRenzo guided students in meditation to release tension. “Focusing fully on the present moment, in a non-judgmental way, is an important key to a peaceful life,” DiRenzo said.

Students and faculty also relieved stress at the therapy dog workshop. Even though the participants could not interact with the dogs online, volunteers from New York Therapy Animals still brought them in front of the screen. 

“It was nice [to see the dogs] but I feel like it wasn’t as impactful because it’s not super therapeutic to just look at [them],” Willa Davis (9) said. However, she enjoyed when the volunteers introduced themselves, their pets, and the program, and shared how their dogs helped them in the quarantine.

To compensate for offering fewer workshops, the WIC sent out daily clips of faculty demonstrating what they do to stay well at home and compiled a Wellness Week video. “Something that’s always good for wellness and people’s health is social connectedness,” psychologist Dr. Liz Westphal said. 

“Hopefully [the Wellness Week video] will be a reminder that the community is still here even though we’re not all together in person,” Marks said.

Upper Division Director of Counseling and Guidance Dr. Daniel Rothstein also wanted the videos to remind students that everyone is going through the pandemic at the same time, albeit differently, he said. 

“Everybody’s struggling in their own way, whether socially, academically, or emotionally,” Marks said. “Remember that taking care of yourself is the number one priority.”