Photo: Yolanda Anguiano
Yolanda Anguiano helps her two kids, who attend Rocketship Fuerza Community Prep in San Jose, with distance learning.

As schools reopen with distance learning, there is widespread agreement that we need to address student mental health now rather than later. Teachers have been encouraged to check in with students, either through surveys or conversations, since the start of the pandemic, and there are counselors available to assist our vulnerable students.

During these difficult times however, is this enough?

Our students are spending more time alone, more time away from friends and teachers. This means more time away from sports, music, academic competitions and more.

Our students are more exposed to the news than they were before the pandemic; some are watching parents or guardians struggle to make ends meet. These events can be stressful for everyone, especially teenagers, who are learning to navigate their own lives during these unusual and unpredictable times.

During my eight years as an educator, I’ve learned that the best social, emotional, behavioral and academic outcomes are a result of preventive practices or cultures. We need support systems in place now, not after mental health incidents begin to surface and escalate.

Stress and anxiety — conditions that trigger physical changes in the body and are connected to mental illness — are each like a little snowball, which, as it rolls, gets larger and larger. Eventually, it can trigger an emotional avalanche. That’s when we see students struggling and in need of professional help. To prevent things from getting to this stage, members of the school community must work together and lean on one another for support.

Here’s how members of the school community can help:

  • Put mental health on the weekly faculty meeting agenda. These are some questions to ask: Are all our students participating and if not, why not? What are some effective ways to identify students who might be struggling? What are some ways we can encourage our students to seek academic or emotional help? How do we create space for students to seek human interaction with adults? A meaningful discussion among adults can generate new ways to identify what works and what doesn’t.
  • Help start an online club featuring programs of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Local NAMI affiliates offer a variety of workshops and classes on different topics that can help students develop coping mechanisms. This is also a great way to meet new peers. I’ve seen the positive impact made by NAMI on school culture. The National Institute of Mental Health also has resources at nimh.nih.gov.
  • Help spread the word about the benefits of guided deep breathing and relaxation techniques. There are many apps that can help, for example the free app Headspace. The wellness center at Dartmouth University has some free videos on how to meditate here.
  • Arrange for weekly online yoga sessions. P.E. teachers may be able to include some yoga in their distance-learning plans. Yoga also could be offered after school for our teachers and students.
  • Encourage students to keep an online journal or schedule conversations with their teachers.
  • Start a Parent Teacher Student Association committee for the campus that focuses on mental health. It could have a powerful influence as we discuss new strategies and successes throughout the year.
  • Promote fun activities, such as a virtual talent show or a virtual poetry night. Such events can fuel a culture of self-care.

So how do we create a culture of prevention and persuade one another to institute some of these ideas? The easiest way to start is by encouraging our own students to highlight what the school currently offers via streamed weekly bulletin announcements.

A student-led approach can be more persuasive in helping students implement strategies. And, by keeping these conversations going among members of a community, we can encourage each other to try new ideas, further instilling a culture of care.

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Sergio Narez teaches biology and chemistry at Valencia High School in Placentia (Orange County). 

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