After school campuses closed in March 2020 and faced an uncertain timeline for reopening, it didn’t take the San Diego County Office of Education's (SDCOE) Student Wellness and School Culture team long to recognize the situation’s potential impact on people’s mental health.
“From the onset, our team set a priority toward lifting up the needs of mental health,” said Executive Director Mara Madrigal-Weiss. “We were all setting up the academics and that’s important. The team did a good job at saying, ‘That’s one piece of it. This is also causing stress and anxiety and it doesn’t matter how well we set up the academic pieces if our kids are not in a place to learn.’”
The team leaned on its existing community of behavioral health partnerships to develop resources for students and parents living under pandemic conditions. Recognizing that some parents were also struggling and students were often supporting themselves and one another, they emphasized getting resources directly into the hands of students, such as the teen guide to mental health and wellness. They also shared resources with SDCOE staff members, offering training in compassion and resilience, dealing with chaotic times, and handling anxiety in adults.
“Prevention is so critical right now, as well as intervention,” said Program Specialist Heather Nemour. “Suicide, we know, is when pain overrides hope, so everything we do is around instilling hope in our school communities. When we intervene early, we can prevent a mental illness from moving along the spectrum from being unwell to having a mental health disorder.”
Providing training for districts has always been a focus for the team, which includes Madrigal-Weiss, Nemour, Violeta Mora, Corinne McCarthy, Charisma De Los Reyes, and Amanda Holt. Topics include youth mental health first aid, teen dating violence, LGBTQIA+ supports, commercial sexual exploitation of children, and school nurse institutes. In the last year, they condensed and shifted training online, and led some at the state level. They also added to an already impressive list of committees, collaboratives, and conferences that team members lead or take part in at the local and state levels, and advocated on behalf of mental health awareness and suicide prevention.
Most notably, the team will continue working at the state level with at least 35 county offices of education on sharing suicide prevention resources as part of the COE Mental Health and Wellness Collaborative. Locally, they lead the San Diego County Mental Health Collaborative with 50 to 100 people monthly to share resources and best practices.
They are also helping support Senate Bill 224, which will ensure students receive mental health education from a qualified instructor at least once during elementary school, once during middle school, and once during high school.
Madrigal-Weiss said that students are driving the increase for mental health awareness in school and they want to be part of the conversation on curriculum. Youth are creating resources for one another, such as these tools created by students at High Tech High, and she believes it is young people who are going to help break down the stigma around mental health issues.
“What I have seen in this last year with all the sadness and tragedy, I have also seen tremendous hope and beauty and awe,” said Madrigal-Weiss. “I have seen it because the youth have risen to the challenge — to say I’m not OK and it’s OK to not be OK. Our job as educators is to support them to continue to lift up that conversation.”
This movement set the stage for the first youth-led mental health event in the state, Mind Out Loud, which took place virtually May 4 to 6. In partnership with Wellness Together School Mental Health and the California Department of Education, middle and high school students had the opportunity to connect with peers, hear from speakers, and access tools and resources relating to mental health.
“This work is about saving lives, and creating opportunities where we model balance,” said Madrigal-Weiss. “We can’t continue to just focus on the academics because we’re in the business of education. We have to focus on the whole person, the whole child, and really speak to that with sincerity. It’s the only way we’re going to make a difference.”