The West Sonoma County Union High School District (WSCUHSD) has been weaving a strong support network of social and emotional services for students managing their schoolwork and their mental health during a year for the books.

Each high school’s website contains a list of supports, like guidance counselors, academic support electives for work completion and organization, the college and career center for navigating college applications, outreach therapy and frequent phone check-ins where campus supervisors call students to help them maintain a consistent routine, especially if they struggle with attendance or troubleshooting technology.

“Some kids just really appreciate the little added structure that somebody notices if you logged on and ‘Somebody is helping make sure I’m out of bed,’” said Laura Schmitt, director of special education who also works in student services.

Schmitt said school counselors tend to be the central point of contact for these resources, Schmitt said, but Analy and El Molino high schools both have “Impact Teams” made up of the vice principal, school counselors, outreach therapists and staff working in attendance that coordinate outreach and referrals for services when a teacher, parent or other figure voices concern about a student.

She said the teams also include representation from the Keeping Kids in School Initiative (KKIS), described on its Sonoma County webpage as a multi-agency partnership headed by the probation department that works with Sonoma County schools to increase attendance and keep students from entering the juvenile justice system.

Sometimes attendance issues and stumbling grades stem from the mental and emotional strain of a spectacularly stressful year, so the district employs and contracts marriage and family therapists (MFTs) to provide one-on-one and group therapy for teenagers to identify their stressors and tools to navigate what may be the most stressful period of their entire lives so far.

Isolation, mental health and academic challenges

Matt Shubin is one such therapist at Analy High School. He pointed out that teens have lost many aspects of life to the pandemic that once functioned as both stressors and stress relievers, like going to school and interacting with people outside of the house for most of the day.

“And now they’re stuck at the house, isolated, solitary, behind a computer screen,” he said, with the structure of balance and dynamism but a memory.

The launch is turbulent for seniors headed for college.

“They had an expectation or idea of what that was going to look like, and now they don’t know what to expect, so a lot of seniors are feeling really disheartened, not as optimistic about their future, feeling more hopeless than they have before,” Shubin said. “And then you kind of throw in the current political state of society, of everything that was going on this whole semester, and it just creates so much unknown for these students.”

Meanwhile, the isolation is especially difficult for kids who found refuge at school from a chaotic home life, building positive relationships with their teachers and feeling accomplished.

“And now, they’re stuck at home in an even more stressful situation where their parents may be struggling, losing their jobs, or a single parent managing a bunch of children at home now,” he said. “So, it starts to get more systemic and spread out into all areas of their life where things are just so out of balance.”

Through it all, health guidelines warn that social gatherings increase the chances of exposure to COVID-19. It’s a dangerous combination for mental health as students try to get their bearings without consistent time with friends or a social atmosphere to help diffuse these pressures, Shubin said. 

 “So, they’re dealing with the most stress and ambiguity and bleak future they ever have, and they don’t have their normal community and stress-relievers, positive activities really needed to navigate through these difficult times,” he cnotinued.

District staff are trying to get social-emotional interaction built into Zoom meetings, like breakout rooms, where students can talk about things that aren’t related to school. Sitting in their rooms isolated for hours isn’t a healthy environment for teenagers, who rely more on their friends in times of hardship, according to Shubin.

He said, “It makes them feel really isolated, lonely, and that’s where we’re seeing some of the depression and anxiety increase, where kids that were previously pretty well-functioning in school, distance learning and the imbalance of life is causing them to experience higher rates of anxiety and depression than we’ve ever seen.”

The trajectory of mental health and academic success does not look good as the pandemic goes on. The changes all happened very fast and high schoolers forge ahead through a haze of Zoom fatigue. Shubin said students who never had mental health concerns are starting to develop anxiety and depression.

Students who used to soar through the hoops get tangled up in the transition to distance learning and students who were doing their best to keep it together lose momentum. Teens are finding that the way their education is going cannot be sustained for a long period of time, he said.

“And it’s tough to see them. They recognize it, they’re like, ‘I’m not an F student, I get As and Bs and now I don’t feel motivated. I’m not getting the lessons on Zoom or distance learning.’ They’re more hands-on learners, so the fact that they are struggling so much, that just brings them down a lot,” Shubin said.

Emotional support via another virtual interaction

Shubin said he’s currently booked up with a caseload of 60 to 80 students, often via Doxy, a telehealth platform similar to Zoom but more secure. Even though he sees more students than usual — around 40 a week — connecting in remote therapy is still challenging.

Some teens are so burnt out on virtual interactions that they want to wait on therapy until they can talk in person. Others opt for more text and quick phone check-ins. Shubin said it’s become clear over the semester that while the outreach therapists see students struggling with grades and attendance, many others are getting by with school work, but don’t eat well or don’t want to get out of bed all day, “and then their parents are calling us saying they’re breaking down and (asking) what can we do to support them.”

He said a more systemic support system is needed to treat students who aren’t getting identified by the Impact Teams or their screening and referral procedures. Shubin said he tries to connect students he sees to community resources or supportive family members so he can make himself more available for acute crises, like when students show signs of self-harm or suicidal ideation. 

Schmitt said that while school therapists can aid students in the short-term, the district purchased a service called Care Solace to ensure students with more significant mental health needs have access to long-term psychological services. She said anyone on the Impact Team can refer students to Care Solace, a company that helps families secure therapy appointments, assisting with insurance paperwork so they can access services with or without insurance.

The district also has a “Wellness Warmline” and email that outreach therapists check every couple of hours for non-crisis calls, but it hasn’t been used yet because most students talk to an adult they trust who then helps refer them to school services, according to Schmitt.

“One of the good things is, we’re so lucky that most high school students are so resilient. They are doing very well given the circumstances of this global pandemic and then their life basically being turned upside-down, and they are so resilient. And that’s one of the key points we try to make to them,” Shubin said.

He said teenagers are often more adaptable to change than adults. The outreach therapists remind them they’ve been through huge transitions before, guiding them to focus on perspective and what they can control or to identify their struggles so they can remember their strengths in the face of those challenges, “and recognizing and normalizing that this is difficult for everybody — teachers, parents, this is difficult for everybody, so they’re not alone in having these struggles.”

Peering into the future as 2020 comes to a close, Shubin said the WSCUHSD administration is looking into how it can provide the same amount of instruction without as much Zoom and allowing students more time to connect with their classmates and teachers. Building positive relationships can boost motivation and allow students to be kids for a while longer at school, he said.

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