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‘Have we gotten close calls? Yes:’ School mental health professionals tell real story of how students are doing

ST. CLOUD, Fla. – When it comes to mental health in schools, professionals like psychologists and social workers have a huge challenge. They’re only with any given student a few minutes each week, and for those that need the most help, it may not be enough.

The reality is most schools share psychologists with more than one facility, because of a lack of funding. But most of those people work really hard in the schools on the daily to take care of potential crises before they happen.

So Trooper Steve went to St. Cloud High School to talk with school psychologist Walkiria de Jesus and social worker Ann Rodriguez to see what they face every single day

Trooper Steve Montiero: On a ground level here at the school, if there’s not an emergency, what are we doing?

Ann Rodriguez: My day can be filled with just triaging students that are making statements of self-harm or making statements that may bring up a red flag of, or the considering wanting to harm themselves or kill themselves. And I do a lot of triaging with those kinds of students, I also, during the day, meet with students that are having a bad day, that are not able to focus in class, that are crying, and the teacher is concerned, they’re also disrupting class. I’ll meet with those students and try to figure out how we can best help them. Their job is to be in school, right? Their academics, right? The school district, the school is not a mental health hospital. But we do have children that have challenges. So we try to try to figure out how can we best support them so that they can be here and to their job.

TSM: So yes, daily basis, you guys are actually interacting with students possibly in crisis?

Both: Yes.

AR: We have good days, which means, you know, I’m only seeing five students with some very intensive issues, then we have really heavy days like Monday, I think it was 10. And we ended the day with a hospitalization.

TSM: Give me the lowest thing possible that would be a crisis for a student. For a trained professional, you’re realizing, okay, this student is going to be fine, just needs a little bit of direction, and they’re going to be okay tomorrow. What is that type of interaction?

AR: At the high school level, it could be ‘My boyfriend broke up with me, okay. And I don’t have my cell phone, because I’ve been misbehaving at home, and I can’t even text him.’

Walkiria de Jesus: Or, ‘I didn’t do my homework’ or ‘didn’t study for a test’. And so they make a statement to get themselves out of that situation. And then when they come to us, we probe them, we ask more detailed questions, and we figure out, okay, you’re trying to run away from your assignment, like you’re trying to take a pass pretty much, right?

TSM: And you’re like, you’re almost understanding them, but saying, this is how you’re going to be able to keep pushing forward.

WDJ: Yeah, ideally, we would like them to put those strategies into practice right away. But you know, they find their way back. And we remind them again, and process what their emotions are, and why they feel the way they feel, it’s more about making them realize that things are going to get better. The cloud might move a little bit to the left, and you might move a little bit to the right. And that’s okay. And tomorrow, the cloud, you might be under the cloud again, and we’ll remind you to get out of the way.

AR: A lot of our students have coping skills, most of them are maladaptive. They’re not good. And so they need to understand that. I give them props, we know that’s a coping skill. It’s not the appropriate one, right? And we do a lot of replacement. Like, what could you have done differently? How could you manage this better, and give them an opportunity to explore that and not be with the pressure of the classroom. The teacher just wants them to be on task. There’s a curriculum, there’s, you know, there’s a routine to the classroom that can’t stop to do that with a student. So it has to happen in a different location.

TSM: Let’s talk about something that we try not to talk about. But the COVID times, right? What, what’s the biggest puzzle piece that is missing? After COVID, that you would say, when you see your students now, you know, this piece is missing somewhere, what happened?

WDJ: The truth is COVID, that showed, magnified, what really was happening at home in a lot of these homes. And so what happened, once you remove the safety, school for a lot of these kids represented safety, secure, shelter, and food. And so now they go back home where the trauma is waiting for them, and they cannot leave that environment. And so a lot of those kids were facing the monster per se, all the time. And what happens is once when they finally get back to school, now we have to deal with all the trauma, it’s compounded trauma, it’s trauma after trauma, they’re afraid of coming back, they’re scared of speaking out. They’re not forthcoming with a lot of their experiences. And we’re just seeing the behaviors, how they are dealing with how they’re coping, they’re acting up, they don’t want to come to school, or they’re just like, some of them are using other inappropriate coping mechanisms, like smoking and things like that.

AR: I think I worked harder during our lockdown, than during a regular school day, because my day started at nine in the morning from home. And I was on the phone with parents until eight or nine o’clock at night, every day, every day of the week. And I was terrified to stop my workday at my allotted number of hours. Because I knew these kids were struggling at home.

TSM: Where do we go? How do we get back on track?

AR: I think first of all students need to know that they’re not the only ones. That everyone struggled through this and that it’s okay to not be okay, and to talk about it. So I think the first thing is, if you’re feeling like you need to talk to somebody, find someone to talk to.

WDJ: Find one of us. There’s one of us in every school. So there’s a social worker, there are counselors, their school psychologist, or your school can find one of them, one of us

TSM: I imagine some get defensive, but tell me about the role the parent plays in helping you

WDJ: The family dynamics plays a role in definitely assessing a lot of services, having a need, and we find ourselves doing a lot of that education aspect of it. Right? Because when we’re looking at, like speaking from my own family, you know, we deal with our issues at home, and you might have that also with a lot of the families that we deal with. ‘No, Mom is going to take this kid to the grandparents house and they’ll get better then, right?’ Well, then grandma might not have the secret ingredient to fix your child where you might need something else. And so it’s educating that aspect and removing the stigma related to mental health. That is the biggest, I guess the biggest thing, I will hope are parents that are culturally different, and speak a different language than than us we’ll understand, because getting that opening that door is, might be the door that, you know, the kids need to get to get the help.

TSM: You’ve got to probably find yourself, though, in spots that sometimes what I’’ll call it is talking to a wall.

AR: Yes. And sometimes it’s about embarrassment. Okay. I’m embarrassed that an adult is telling me about my child and I had no clue. So they defend themselves by sort of being very abrupt.

WDJ: How about we’re calling another person that works for the district and we’re working with their child’s teacher, that could be very difficult. That’s difficult, too. And so we try to get the defenses down, because now there’s another level of embarrassment.

AR: Or parent that is a nurse, for example. So it’s, we can have those very difficult conversations.

TSM: And sometimes I feel it’s like an embarrassment to come forward just to talk about a lot of stigma because you think this is going to, this could ruin my entrance to college. And that is a common theme in my sports scholarship, because I met with the counselor, I met with the social worker, I got help. Is that something that students should be concerned about?

AR: The student should be concerned about staying alive. That’s right. That’s what they should be concerned about. You know, I tell students who talk about ‘I won’t be able to, you know, get a scholarship for football.’ Well, you won’t have a scholarship if you complete if you complete suicide, you won’t have a scholarship or you will lose a scholarship if they see that you are harming yourself in the locker room. And if they see that you’re doing this or that, you know, so we do a lot of, you know, very honest, honest conversations. And I do that as well with parents. I’ve told parents, I’d rather have rather have a child that is alive and in treatment than a dead child.

TSM: How, throughout your careers, how close have we gotten, do we think, to losing students? How many students do you think you guys have saved?

Both: Wow. You know, we’ve never been asked that question.

AR: I’m having a moment. It’s gotten very close. I think that every student that needs mental health services, and is able to connect because I made a linkage, is a child that’s been saved.

WDJ: Yes, I agree.

AR: Have I had a student lose their life? On my watch? No.

WDJ: Have we gotten close calls? Yes.

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