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'Happy Distractions,' 'Soft Fascination,' and More: Dr. Lisa Damour Talks to Students about Mental Health

Right up front in Pingry's annual Gilbert H. Carver '79 Memorial Lecture, author, lecturer, and consultant Dr. Lisa Damour told students that stress is part of life—it's going to happen and it helps with mental growth. Once students accept that school is intended to be stressful, they will feel less stressed. The potential challenge is in how students handle chronic stress . . . stress that they can't get away from . . . a timely topic, given the stress and uncertainty during the pandemic.

Here, Dr. Damour suggested a number of options: happy distractions (television, being out in nature, playing with a pet, crafting, reading); self-care (sleep, physical activity, healthy eating); and "quality social connections." In this last category, Dr. Damour said every student needs to have someone to share their worries with, someone to share their secrets with, and "a sense of feeling connected and accepted."

Notably, when talking about self-care, Dr. Damour made the audience aware of the importance of "soft fascinations." Whereas a "hard fascination" is completely absorbing and doesn't let a person think about anything else, a "soft fascination" is "interesting, but not that interesting"—in other words, some type of automatic task that leaves mental bandwidth open for people to reflect on and resolve problems.

Elaborating on the "sense of feeling connected and accepted," Dr. Damour encouraged every student to think deeply: When is your sense of belonging at its highest and lowest? Beyond that question: When yours is high, whose might be low . . . and have you made someone's sense of belonging go down? What could you have done differently?

Dr. Damour charged the students with three tasks: make sure social connections are met, have responsibility for and compassion for others' sense of belonging, and don't allow institutional, systemic, and structural racism to be intellectual or theoretical—that is the core feeling of "not belonging" on a massive scale.

Takeaways from the Pandemic
- Stress is contextual and cumulative.
- Reevaluate what constitutes a "crisis."
- Take a giant reset on what constitutes "mental health"—having the right feeling at the right time, and being able to cope effectively with the feeling.

Community reflections

"One of the big takeaways is, now more than ever, the kids crave a sense of community. They want to come to school. They need to come to school. They want to talk to their peers and teachers. They want to have lunch with their friends, even if it's behind plexiglass! They've realized how important it is to feel included and be a part of something—which, in this era of remote learning and the uncertainty of what the next day will bring, can be quite unsettling for them."
—Samantha Schifano, Associate Director of Admission; Director of Middle and Upper School Admission & Director of Financial Aid; Form III Dean

"Seniors are appreciative that, at such an uncertain time—with the pandemic, academic pressures, and getting ready to transition to college—the Carver assembly addressed issues of mental health. It was useful and important for them to hear Dr. Damour not only normalize stress, but also talk about how to manage it effectively."
—Julia Dunbar, Upper School History Teacher; Director of Global Education and Engagement; Form VI Dean

"Dr. Damour's focus on a sense of belonging goes hand-in-hand with our work in diversity, equity, and inclusion. Much of our work this year has been on increasing a sense of belonging for our students so that they do not have to check a part of their identity at the door when they arrive at Pingry each morning. She also explicitly named the stressors that are impacting our community. Too often, we hear language about 'troubling times' or another euphemism that steers clear of what is really central. She called out the racism that continues to be pervasive in this country."
—Gilberto Olvera P '29, Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

The Gilbert H. Carver '79 Memorial Lecture was established in memory of Gilbert Carver, Class of 1979, by his father Calvin and stepmother June Carver, his sister Marcey Carver, his brother Chip Carver, Jr., Class of 1977, and Chip's wife Anne DeLaney, Class of 1979. This lecture series supports open dialogue on self-esteem and acceptance and—thanks to its supporters—will continue in perpetuity.

Contact: Greg Waxberg '96, Communications Writer, Editor of The Pingry Review