American school counselors have a tough job ahead of them on the ground as they confront a youth mental health crisis.
US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued the advice earlier this month, saying the pandemic has already contributed to rising rates of anxiety, depression and suicide among teens.
Alma Lopez is the Principal School Counsellor at Livingston Middle School in Merced County, California, and was recently named Best School Counsellor by the American School Counselors Association. In her school, she sees behavioral challenges and struggles to make friends among students.
She says some kids don’t want to go to school, while others want to learn in person all the time. School counselors work to help students learn how to maintain friendships and solve problems in a healthy way.
“A lot of the kids were in the last building that was pretty normal in fourth grade, and now they’re in middle school, trying to figure out who they are,” she says.
Lopez and her team recently conducted a suicide prevention lesson about supporting friends and seeking help from the school’s 800 students. The counselors asked the students if they wanted to talk about the lesson—and 200 students, a quarter of the students, reached out to ask for help, she says.
Counselors followed up with students and in some cases made referrals to more experienced excerpts outside of school to address some of the more challenging mental health issues, she says.
Lopez says that flexible students seeking support help counselors address this crisis during a time when counseling offices are busy.
“We need to make sure that we, as school counselors, that we as educators, and that as young adults take care of ourselves actively,” she says, “put this oxygen mask on ourselves first so that we can be there to support our students through the many, many difficult challenges that they face.” facing them.”
Like many places in the country, Lopez’s community has suffered a great deal of collective loss and grief. Last year, nine primary caregivers died of causes unrelated to COVID-19, and now the community is taking even more tolls from the disease.
In California’s Central Valley, students who live in farming communities do not always have access to the resources they need because of the location.
When Lopez first started working in her school district, she was one of two school counselors. Her team has since expanded to five.
The need for more counselors predated the pandemic, she said, but her school is now receiving funding to provide services students need.
Lopez hopes that services in her community will continue to grow and notes that schools across the country need to hire a number of mental health professionals recommended by national organizations.
The American School Counselors Association recommends a ratio of one counselor to every 250 students—a goal her school has yet to achieve. But Lopez says the conversation about mental health is happening in schools in a new way.
“Mental health wasn’t something we talked about openly about before, and there was a stigma to it,” she says. “And I think the talk about ‘mental health is health’ is happening…at the national and state level in a way that it hasn’t before.”
In her community, Lopez and her team have created a “virtual calming room” that gives students access to resources that aid in journaling, movement, and visual relaxation as well as providing hotline numbers for children in crisis.
The school has also formed a student-led BIONIC team, which stands for “Believe it or not, I’m interested”. Lopez says team members will reach out to new students or children with extended illness to support them.
“Those are two things that I think are two things that school counselors and people on the school premises can do almost immediately to help young people,” she says.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (Spanish: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889) Or the crisis text line by sending 741741.
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Ashley Luke produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Chris Bentley. Alison Hagan adapted it for the web.