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Mental health at boarding school: Dr. Michael Kern describes Interlochen’s uniquely relational system
From individualized support to on-board arts faculty, here’s how one of the nation’s top arts boarding schools approaches mental health.
Attending an arts boarding school is an exciting adventure for many young students. Students are learning to navigate life away from home, as well as how to find balance in busy schedules while they pursue excellence in the arts. They’re also experiencing all the normal struggles of adolescence—common issues like learning to socialize well with peers and develop a solid sense of identity.
What does Interlochen Arts Academy do to help support student mental health? We sat down with Dr. Michael Kern, Director of Student Support Services at Interlochen, as he shared his insights on common mental health concerns, the resources Interlochen offers to help students work through them, and the deep relational core of Interlochen’s student support system.
Common mental health issues in high school
Dr. Kern holds a Ph.D. in School Psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University, is a licensed psychologist in the state of Michigan, and is a nationally and state certified school psychologist. He speaks from experience when he describes common challenges Interlochen students face. Even though students are away from home, he doesn’t see a lot of homesick students—most students who struggle with missing home find themselves feeling more adjusted to their new environment after a month or two. Instead, he sees issues that most teenagers deal with at one time or another, regardless of where they attend school.
“For many of them, the hardest thing is their social lives, dealing with perfectionism, and comparing themselves to others,” he says.
Some students also need extra help building new routines away from home, as they schedule in time for homework, their creative pursuits, and spending time with friends.
“There comes a certain time in the semester where I feel like almost every one of my meetings is brainstorming with students about how they can take a down day this weekend,” says Kern. “I ask them, ‘How are you going to stay organized and get enough done so that for 24 hours on Saturday you don’t have to do any work?’”
Thankfully, these are issues that Interlochen directly addresses in several ways. The unique mental health support systems at Interlochen include individualized plans, student advisories, connection to external resources, and communication with faculty and residence life staff.
Our entire support philosophy is built around relationships. It starts from the second a student enrolls.
Support systems at Interlochen Arts Academy
At Interlochen Arts Academy, supporting student mental health starts from the very beginning of the student’s journey. Before they even arrive on campus, students and their families are invited to work closely with Student Support Services to set up a support plan.
“Our entire support philosophy is built around relationships,” says Kern. “It starts from the second a student enrolls. If their enrollment information shows the potential for some kind of a need, we call the family and spend close to an hour learning about the student and exploring what supports they can access here on campus. We also talk with the students themselves, building that relationship and developing a pattern of check-ins from the very beginning of the year.”
In addition to individualized plans, students will also work with advisory groups to develop healthy habits from the beginning of their time at Interlochen. Advisory groups usually consist of two faculty members and 8-10 other students. The groups meet each week to discuss specific topics, and serve as a safe environment for students to build relationships with their peers and supportive adults.
“Early in the school year, we do an advisory for the whole student body to help them go through their schedules and lay out strong routines,” says Kern.
Students can reach out to one of four professional mental health counselors who work on Interlochen’s campus. In addition—especially in the case of more serious diagnoses—the team helps students get connected with online resources and local counselors as they are needed.
“We have several different online resources, including a telehealth provider called HelloHero that provides discounted tele-therapy rates to Interlochen students. We’re also in touch with counselors in the area to provide additional support,” says Kern. “All our students also have access to a free 24/7 crisis line provided by Ulliance, so they can always call and talk to somebody.”
Kern and his team also work closely with Interlochen’s faculty, so that their artistic gifts and their mental health can flourish side-by-side.
“We are out there in the community, we meet with faculty every week, we develop lesson plans for advisories, and we work to build a strong social-emotional curriculum,” says Kern. “The best school mental health support systems are integrated. The entire system is here to support the student.”
I'm extremely proud of how hard we work to encourage students to ask for help, becoming advocates for themselves in all areas of life.
The best part: Learning self-advocacy
While Interlochen Arts Academy encourages students to pursue their highest artistic dreams, it’s even more important that they become well-adjusted adults who know how to ask for support when they need it. This priority is shared by everyone on the Student Support Services, including the arts faculty members.
“I'm extremely proud of how hard we work to encourage students to ask for help, becoming advocates for themselves in all areas of life. Self-advocacy and a little self-awareness is probably the most important thing we can teach,” says Kern. “What I love about working here is that the faculty members, first and foremost, want to see their students become happy, healthy adults—even more than they want to see their students competing on The Voice! That is our first goal.”
The work is extremely fulfilling to Kern, who gets to live out his own calling by helping young students.
"I love getting to see them grow. I love getting to see them find that positive power and potential within themselves,” Kern expresses.
The emphasis on self-advocacy, integrated support, and fostering positive relationships creates a nurturing environment where students can not only survive but thrive. At Interlochen Arts Academy, the community’s commitment to holistic well-being ensures that students find their way, not just academically, but as resilient individuals prepared for life beyond campus.