Supporting Student and Teacher Mental Health During COVID-19

El Cerrito’s James Morehouse Project leads the way

It has become incredibly clear that the pandemic has increased the mental health needs of adults and children alike. The stressors of physical health, financial pressures, job instability, and distance from our social communities of support (church, school, friends) have led to a spike in requests for mental health support. This is especially true for communities that are already under tremendous pressure from ever-present systems and structures of oppression. 

As students “return” to school through distance learning, early signs of isolation and depression have surfaced — while some students have avoided logging on for school, others are struggling just to get out of bed. Students are reporting a level of sadness atypical for the start of the school year and they are not alone. 

Educators too have shared stories of sadness and stress. Many teachers are drawn to their profession out of a love for connecting with young people, and watching them learn and grow into their fullest potential. It is no surprise then, that looking at a screen full of Zoom squares — many with cameras off — can leave teachers feeling disheartened and even isolated.\

Heeding the call El Cerrito’s James Morehouse Project helps teachers, parents, and students cope with the ups and downs of the 2020-21 school year

At El Cerrito High School, the James Morehouse Project (or JMP for short) team is working hard to meet the wide range of community mental health and wellness needs. 

This summer, a group of ECHS teachers, led by JMP staff, met regularly to support each other, designing solutions for the foreseen stressors on students and strategizing on how to sustain connection and support. This community of practice continues as school has restarted and now serves as a safe place for teachers to recharge and consult with peers. 

Student support groups are also starting with a focus on the most acute mental health and wellness needs. Groups are forming for students who have experienced catastrophic loss, are in need of social support, and for those who have been referred for social isolation. These sacred spaces are, for some children, their only lifeline to the outer world and the way they can find a path to academic reengagement, as well as social and emotional wellbeing. 

Using their “Culture Keepers” program as a model, the JMP is also exploring ways that students can help students. “Culture Keepers” are students trained to offer peer support to students struggling on campus for a range of reasons. Peer-to-peer support programs have become increasingly popular over the years, particularly as peer-to-peer interactions are less stigmatizing and can normalize the challenges of adolescence. The challenge now, however, is connecting youth to each other in a distanced world.   

Lastly, the JMP team is welcoming nine new graduate student interns to offer small group and one-on-one support to students as needed throughout the year. Utilizing online platforms and phone calls, students are able to access therapeutic supports as they navigate the complexities of this school year.

A glimpse into mental health and wellness activities in West Contra Costa schools 

Leadership Public Schools – Richmond

To build community, students are grouped into student “families” of 10-12 students that stay together over the course of their high school career. These “families” meet virtually every week to connect, share stories, and build relationships. With the group size small enough (made possible by all school staff facilitating a family), all students are able to talk, engage, and ultimately, feel seen and heard.

Mira Vista K-8

One teacher set up virtual home visits, meeting with every student and family to get to know them during the first two weeks of school. Students were excited to show their teacher their house, introduce their family, and share hopes and needs for the year to come. This 30-60 minute commitment to each child went a long way to deepen the understanding of the student experience and build the foundation for a trusting relationship.

Richmond College Prep

At Richmond College Prep (RCP), parent wellness is a key priority. The RCP team acknowledges that these current conditions create tremendous stress on caregivers who are trying to support distance learning as well as work and maintain financial stability. To that end, the RCP team is creating a weekly parent space dedicated to  recharging and sharing community. Guided by the Eight Dimensions of Wellness, caregivers wrap up the end of a busy week by learning new self-care strategies.

As we tip-toe toward the end of 2020, it is evident that the current student needs are just the tip of the iceberg. As shelter-in-place continues, fires rage on and off, and air quality numbers rise and fall, referral lists for services keep growing. It is clear that our schools must continue to invest in, and monitor, the mental wellbeing of our students, teachers, staff and school leaders.

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