Some days, Patrick Lovelace couldn’t make it until 3pm at his large public high school, and he’d call his mother to pick him up early. Other days, he refused to go altogether. His anxiety was crippling; healthy relationships were hard to nurture.
So, when his family proposed that he check out McLean’s Arlington School, a small, therapeutic high school on the grounds of the hospital, Patrick was hesitant but ultimately agreed. The visit was anxiety-provoking—the building looked different than imagined, how would it feel to not graduate with the kids in his neighborhood?—but he agreed to enroll.
The school changed his life. “Within a few months, it became my home. I found a community of students like me who had a difficult time in school because of trauma, mental illness, or substance use,” recalled Patrick. “We did our best to support each other, hold each other accountable, heal together, and grow into people who could graduate and lead successful lives.”
In May, Patrick, 22, will graduate from Suffolk University, with a major in public relations and a minor in arts administration.
Like Patrick, Sean Dolan found a home at the Arlington School, and the young man—nicknamed “the gentle giant” for his 6’2” stature, easy hugs, and protective nature—thrived, according to his mother, Janet. Having been diagnosed with bipolar depression during elementary school, Sean struggled until he joined the Arlington School community.
“The love, compassion, and support he found at the school fostered a sense of hope and success that he had not experienced any other time in his academic career,” she said. An extremely hard worker, he graduated from college with a degree in criminal justice and later took courses for additional certifications.
While depression continued to affect all aspects of his life, he found joy in his family, friends, karate, and his job. But in 2012, at age 27, he took his own life.
As a gift to Janet, Sean’s father, Jim, began giving a yearly college scholarship to an Arlington School senior, and that single scholarship eventually became two. “It’s our way of paying it forward,” explained Janet. “Sean’s love for the school became our love for the school. We wanted to honor Sean and help other students achieve their dreams of continuing their educations.”
A Warm, Flexible Place to Learn
Building a therapeutic, supportive community is as deliberate as it is organic, according to Director Suzanne Loughlin, APRN, BC.
Enrollment is limited—about 40 students a year—and each student is assigned to a school mental health clinician whom they see frequently throughout the week. Teachers teach, and clinicians counsel, but everyone pitches in to do what needs doing, taking students on walks, advising clubs, planning events, or serving lunch, which students and staff eat together.
And when students struggle to stay focused, teachers are understanding, allowing them to take breaks or leave class to read quietly, engage in coping strategies, or meet with their clinician, for example.
“We’re more of a relationship-based program than a traditional behavioral program, which means lots of talking and negotiating,” explained Loughlin. “That doesn’t mean we don’t have high expectations, but our goal is to come to resolutions based on acceptance and respect.”
Teachers tend to stick around—some have been there for decades—and the school building is a cozy brick Victorian, originally built as a patient’s residence.
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