A Passion for Sport Inspires Two Bronxville Seniors To Turn Compassion into Action
There is a quote by poet e.e.cummings that goes something like this: “It takes courage to grow up and be who you are.” The life of a teenager, and more specifically, the life of a high schooler undoubtedly transverses many of the building blocks necessary for life after high school and into adulthood, careers, and beyond. It has been a widely adopted assumption that teenagers are “selfish” due to the biological factor of the teenage brain not having a fully developed prefrontal cortex, which makes them susceptible to poor-decision making. However, according to the American Psychological Association, there is a “growing recognition that what was previously seen as immaturity is actually a cognitive, behavioral, and neurological flexibility that allows teens to explore and adapt to their shifting inner and outer worlds.” Acknowledging the school of thought that all things can be true, two Bronxville seniors simultaneously defy, support, and shatter the perception of teenagers.
Joseph Cutaia and Nicholas Hommeyer are seniors at Bronxville High School, and also good friends who have known each other since second grade. The love of sport is just one of the things they share in common. Joseph has participated in crew for five years. He has been rowing for the varsity team for the past four years and competes with the Pelham Community Rowing Association, where he is also a captain. He will be attending Princeton in the fall, competing with the men’s rowing team as their coxswain. Nicholas is a ‘huge’ football fan and enjoyed playing for Bronxville until an injury sidelined him his sophomore year. Both students note that sports have been an important outlet for them. “Crew provided a sense of community, and it was incredibly valuable to engage in an experience outside of school. I appreciate the diversity of the PCRA team and the meaningfulness of being part of something bigger than myself,” said Joseph. For Nicholas, playing football not only engaged his passion, it helped with alleviating stress. And surprisingly, it also opened his eyes to the prevalence of mental illness, and how it does not discriminate. When one of his fantasy football players was out for several weeks without a given reason, he was curious. It turns out the player, Hayden Hurst, was suffering from depression. Thankfully, after Nicholas’ injury he was able to heal and stay physically and mentally healthy. But it was an awakening to find out that even successful professional players struggle with mental illness.
Sensing an increasing need for mental health education, Nicholas and Joseph decided to tackle the subject by acting locally. Both served as student chairs to the school’s parent and faculty wellness committee, and last year they were tasked with finding a speaker to come to the school to talk about mental health. The process was surprising. “We could not find a speaker that checked all the boxes, mainly someone who was powerful enough to have a lasting impact on the students. Instead, Joe and I came up with the idea of implementing a mental health training program in the school. We knew a program would provide a lasting impact on not only current Bronxville students, but also future generations of students as well,” said Nicholas. “Bronxville is amazing in so many aspects: great faculty, great people, great opportunities. And with that can come the duality of pressure. On the one hand, a high-pressure environment challenges people to perform at their highest level- which is great, and it can also cause stress. There is an awareness among students and faculty about the rise of some of the issues. Ultimately, we believe that if we can find a way to train students to feel more comfortable with reaching out to their friends, most of whom have known each other since kindergarten, it would create a stronger and wider network of support,” said Joseph.
Studies in 2021 by the Pew Research Center and Center for Disease Control have concluded that 37% of high school students in grades nine through twelve in public and private schools have reported poor mental health due to stress, anxiety, and depression, and 44% of students have reported that they felt sad or hopeless for at least two weeks in a row. In college students, the American Psychological Association in 2021 reported more than 60% of college students met the criteria for at least one mental health problem, according to the Healthy Minds Study, which collects data from 373 campuses nationwide. Colleges are taking the data seriously and finding ways to incorporate a broader culture of wellness into their policies, systems, and day-to-day campus life. Duke, University of Virginia, Johns Hopkins, University of North Carolina, Morehouse, Ohio State, and Penn State are just some of the colleges that are implementing mental health training and wellness plans.
“While researching training programs, we found the Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) program. It is like a CPR course in that it provides a certificate of training. We checked with high schools and colleges that have used MHFA and we were impressed by the feedback on the organization and the response to its effectiveness. The program also has professionals in our area that could come into the school, as opposed to doing the training off-site, which was very appealing. It furthered the community driven focus that we were looking for. Our hope is to leave a lasting and important legacy in the school,” said Joseph.
Youth Mental Health First Aid (YMHFA) is an evidence-based training program administered by the National Council for Mental Wellbeing that teaches Youth Mental Health First Aid is designed to teach parents, family members, caregivers, teachers, school staff, peers, neighbors, health and human services workers, and other caring citizens how to help an adolescent who is experiencing a mental health or addictions challenge or is in crisis. YMHFA is primarily designed for adults who regularly interact with young people. The course introduces common mental health challenges for youth, reviews typical adolescent development, and teaches a 5-step action plan for how to help young people in both crisis and non-crisis situations.
Last month, 60 Bronxville faculty members were trained in YMHFA. The next phase will entail specialized training for three to five staff members who then will be able to teach skills and protocols to students in grades ten and up. “The changing of friendships and interests during a student’s high school years can cause anxiety. It is important to destigmatize mental health issues and empower students with knowledge to understand the pathways for support,” said Nicholas. “The teen training focuses on presenting situations and appropriate and helpful responses and how to be an engaged and active listener,” said Joseph. “A student-led program allows for more community building and bringing people together. We want to create a strong and safe community” added Nicholas.
Nicholas and Joseph are grateful to Bronxville’s faculty and administration for their support and encouragement throughout the process. Ann Meyer, Bronxville High School Principal, and Dr. Roy Montesano, who recently retired, were especially excited by Joseph and Nicholas’ proposal, presentation, and passion. “Joseph and Nick approached us with a well researched, proactive program to empower our faculty and eventually our students in providing mental health first aid. The program, like CPR, teaches how to 'stabilize' an individual who may be in crisis while we seek to connect that person with the professional resources to deal with mental health and/or substance abuse issues. Our faculty immediately embraced this idea because they know that students can only learn when they feel they are in a safe environment within a strong community. We look forward to training some of our high school students in mental health first aid in the upcoming year,” said Ms. Meyer.
Sometimes inspiration is found in unexpected places. For Nicholas, it was his passion for football that led him on the path of healing and helping. The sport inadvertently sparked in him the desire to be part of a solution in addressing students’ mental health. The other silver lining of his football injury and recovery was a newfound interest in the field of physical therapy. Nicholas is currently interning with the practice where he was treated and plans to pursue a career in the field. Both Joseph and Nicholas have demonstrated the courage to lead, a compassion towards others, and all the right moves to get the play successfully into the end zone.