*We are not qualified mental health experts. We recommend visiting community resources to seek help and professional advice*
Memes are a coping mechanism, Discord is rising in the ranks in terms of most used communication platform and students are actively manifesting a year that isn’t as chaotic as 2020.
As the coronavirus runs rampant, an internal disease seems to be plaguing the student body: Zoom fatigue. Quarantine has packaged frustration and mental drainage in one nice neat bundle called “distance learning.”
However, we aren’t struggling just because school is remote. Our struggles stem from a global pandemic that has upended almost every aspect of our lives: wearing masks, not being able to see friends, losing housing or even family to this virus. If buildings magically reopened fully tomorrow, people would still be traumatized and terrified.
In many ways, schools were the de-facto mental health providers pre-pandemic and that role has extended into the bowels of distance learning. At GAWHS, the first line of defense is typically a trusted adult; it then siphons down to the counselors, administration or even our school psychologist.
While this chain of support worked fairly well in person, the increased distance that is a symptom of virtual learning creates a dilemma. Across the nation, distance learning has cut off an “estimated 55 million children and teenagers from school staff members whose open doors and compassionate advice helped them build self-esteem, navigate the pressures of adolescence and cope with trauma,” according to a report by the New York Times. If this is so, will Wilson’s chain of support be strong enough? The question begged to be asked, so we went across the chain and asked it.
(Myth busted: We have a school psychologist?)
(Photo provided by Glen A. Wilson’s School Psychologist: Ms. Middleton)
Karen Middleton spends most of the school day in a small room cushioned between attendance and the nurse’s office. Ever since distance learning began she’s online, “all day, every day,” working from home, and she’s not Wilson’s first psychologist either.
According to Dr. Kenfield, we’ve always had a school psychologist, most have just been “part-time:” a policy echoed across the district that many high school principals found disconcerting. Eventually, one psychologist was paid to be on site for the whole day.
This is Middleton’s fifth year at Wilson. As I spoke with Middleton over the phone, she struck me as the epitome of what a school psychologist should be: knowledgeable, goofy and a good listener. She recalls the Shark head pencil sharpener that enthralled kids who she counseled in her tiny office. “My conversation pieces,” she says while noting that she still hasn’t changed the Star Wars-themed calendar on her wall.
With a master’s in school counseling and more than 20 years of experience in the district, Middleton is a minefield for mental health advice; so what’s stopping more students from taking advantage of this resource?
“I didn’t even know we had a psychologist,” sophomore Alex Li said.
Li’s sentiment is echoed across the majority of the student population, most of whom walked right past Middleton’s office while leaving campus.
“I diagnose learning disabilities and give IQ tests. There’s only one of me and over a thousand kids at Wilson, so you wouldn’t see me unless you were referred for special education,” Middleton said. “Sometimes, I collaborate on some pretty heavy things. There is a threat assessment and a suicide risk assessment if someone is a danger to themselves or others.”
One-on-one counseling sessions held in her tiny office now occur in the confines of a computer screen: Zoom meetings at home offer less privacy since household members might be listening, Middleton explains. Yet, she loves interacting with kids.
When approached on the issue, Dr. Kenfield made it clear that Middleton “is available to assist all students.” However, as psychologists are primarily funded through the special education program, the majority of Middleton’s work is “done with special needs students.” In other words, while Middleton supports the school as a whole, she mainly focuses on individualized education plans.
With counseling sessions every day until 3 PM and IEP meetings immediately after, Middleton’s schedule is cram-packed. During the school year, she closed the filing cabinets in her office and brought paperwork home to continue over the weekends. She loves interacting with kids, but Middleton simply doesn’t have enough time to see a larger general student population.
“Frankly, I don’t know if I could accommodate because I’m spread fairly thin most of the time. I’m all about the kids, so it’s tough. Last week I had six or seven meetings. Just like with your homework, sometimes it all piles up at once when every single teacher gives you something. Last week was my big homework week. It was pretty intense, but now I can breathe a little,” Middleton said. “The occasional kid that will come directly to me is kinda nice: a change of pace to see someone personally.”
(Myth busted: Wilson faculty are struggling, too?)
It’s no surprise that school faculty are fighting against a tidal wave of expectations. The support system that once situated itself on a physical campus has moved into the confines of our homes and has changed.
Teachers constitute as part of a student’s support system, but not to a degree where they should be directly responsible for making sure that the student is dressed, emotionally stable and well-fed.
A recent banner advertising Coffee With the Principal (Source: GAWHS Website)
Besides attending four different district meetings a week to keep families and faculty informed, Danielle Kenfield hosts her biweekly “Coffee with the Principal” meetings and is also charged to respond to parental concerns that may wind up in her inbox.
More importantly, as the principal at Wilson, Kenfield is a vital link in every student’s support chain. Yet, like Middleton, she has a heavy plate.
Over quarantine, Kenfield has become iconic for her “Weekly Morning Announcements with Dr. Kenfield” which (besides the rock music paired with a list of birthdays) is a place for students to get the occasional mental health tip. Although some tips come from the Social Emotional Learning curriculum from ROAR (#flashbackfriday), more come from research Kenfield has personally done. For her, these announcements are like therapy, a way to connect with students.
“One of the things I was reading during my own personal education on mental health is ‘The Habit of Becoming a Workaholic.’ That could be very detrimental to your mental health and I saw myself when I read that, and thought, I really need to be careful,” said Kenfield.
Normally if she were at school, Kenfield would stop and go to a cross country meet or drive to the district for a meeting. This she said, “helped break up the time.” Now, sitting in front of the computer, she often loses track of time since there is always something to do.
“I think a lot of [students] don’t understand how much variety of resources we have at the school because they don’t reach out,” Kenfield said. ““Your counselor typically is your first line of action. That’s the first person you want to call, and then your counselor will assign you to different spots, whether it’s our internal psychologist or community resources to reach out to.”
As the counselor for students with the last name G-L, Megan Jara makes it her mission to fight against the disinformation haze by sending her students regular email updates. The “distance” in distance learning proved to be a bigger complication than what many expected. However, for Jara, the hardest part of remote learning is reaching out to the students who are struggling.
“I always say “go to your counselors” cause we are always here, and we have some levels of flexibility so it is always an easy contact to make. I encourage you to tell your parents first, but I know that not everyone can do that,” Jara said.
Fortunately, the referral process—steps taken by a teacher to get assistance for a student with whom they directly work—might be a temporary solution to this elaborate systemic problem. According to Jara, students who feel they can benefit from being in contact with the school can be sent a referral that will allow the school to check up on how they are doing. While imperfect, the addition of resources found online (at the Wilson website) can be a great aid to students as well.
“I think we can complain how this year has gone left and right, but there are a lot of positives, and I think one of the best ones is that mental health has been in the spotlight,” Jara said.
Mental health has undoubtedly gone mainstream, especially during the pandemic. Through several viral posts and media tweets, the emphasis on self-love and preservation during these times of isolation has been emphasized more than ever. Recently, students have been taking mental health days, a day where people do not attend work or school to relieve stress and renew vitality. Of course, Jara recommends for students to take a break once-and-a-while but warns of the negative effects that can lead to more anxiety from procrastination.
“It’s funny because here you are, high school students: people [are] telling you to get ready for the world out there. Take one day and just breathe and not worry about things: There is some real power with [taking a mental health day].”
(Manifesting: Wilson’s student body and mental health )
“It doesn’t feel like we’re learning anymore. It just feels like deadline after deadline,” sophomore Felicity Yu said.
Although Yu has conveyed her struggles to school staff before, she says their conversations seem “filtered.” There is a disconnect between kids and adults, Yu explains, talking to someone in a position of authority is different than talking to someone in the same activities or a similar situation.
“My go-to-people are my best friends,” Yu said.
Like the flu, distance learning came with a bout of symptoms: for example, the social dynamic and physical routine that immediately became absent in our daily lives. Yet, not everyone is having a terrible time. Schools exists to be part of a student’s educational process, not an eight-hour daycare where an educated teen magically emerges 13 academic years later. Indeed, the newfound independence that came with structuring one’s day according to one’s own liking has been an unexpected perk of remote learning.
For Yu, this manifested into a positive coping strategy. Besides finding time to talk to her friends, she also drafts a daily checklist every night before she goes to bed.
“Planning out the next day is what makes me calm before I go to sleep. I like sticking to routines; being behind schedule makes me feel like I’m leaving my mental health unchecked,” Yu said. “One thing I found that helps me a lot is putting even the most basic stuff: my checklist starts off with ‘waking up.’ Then as soon as I ‘wake up’ I can check that off. It just allows me to feel that sense of accomplishment; leaves you satisfied. Then once I check it off, it motivates me to do harder checks.”
Despite alarmingly high amounts of complaints and “home-alone” whiplashes, not having to wake up as early in the morning has been a glaring plus during virtual learning: being at home is more convenient for some students.
“Since everything is on the computer, I can manage all my assignments in one place and I can just stay at my computer and do my work. School isn’t the source of my happiness. I just want to do well at school, go to college and get a job. That hasn’t changed,” junior Truman Ma said.
Over quarantine, Ma’s coping strategies include talking to his friends and alternating between two hours of studying and playing an hour of video games. Like many students, Ma can only recall a brief mention of the resources at Wilson yet the available mental health resources aren’t collecting dust for no reason. Some students like Ma simply don’t believe that they need them.
“My current coping strategies are working so I’m just going to continue using them. I wouldn’t say I’m thriving, but I also wasn’t thriving at normal school either. I’m just able to manage it,” Ma said.
In the coming years perhaps Wilson could improve by implementing techniques to make teachers, counselors, administrators and perhaps even Ms. Middleton, more accessible to the student body. Clearly, Wilson is not alone: thousands of high schools across the nation have upgraded their student support services in an effort to promote mental well being.
“We have QR codes that all the students have access to that they’re able to scan immediately if they need support from a counselor” Dr. Carolyn Hoffman, the principal at Sierra Vista Junior High School in Canyon Country, told ABC7.
With a school reopening barely hovering over the horizon, it looks like we’ll be remote learning for a while longer. Until then, Wilson’s chain of support is there to pull its weight and support its students.
“In the long run, you don’t get the reward you want if you don’t take care of yourself,” Kenfield said.
“EoTE Mental Health: the awful, the inspiring and the light at the end of the tunnel” is part of our GAWHS Distance Learning Series.
Check out previous coverage here:
It is important, now more than ever, for students to support other students. Support student-run coverage of distance learning at Wilson HS by following Paw Prints Weekly on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook for updates.