By Melanie Kay-Wyatt, Ed.D.
Mental health concerns were pushed to the forefront amid the COVID-19 pandemic. While mental health has always been an issue in need of open discussion, it had not been addressed due in large part to the stigma associated with it. As we mark Mental Health Awareness Month in May, Alexandria City Public Schools realizes silence or inaction is not the answer.
The consequences of not addressing mental health problems adversely impacts our students. Strain on a student’s mental health can affect their energy level, their ability to concentrate, hindering their performance and outlook on life.
In the midst of the pandemic, ACPS took a proactive approach by setting aside 30 minutes each day for SEAL, which is social, emotional and academic learning. SEAL lessons continue within each of our schools and students say it helps to take pause to ask that question, “How are you feeling today?”
Those simple words open the conversation to help students address and understand how the stresses of their daily lives are impacting them and as a result their ability to concentrate throughout the school day. SEAL also helps students to improve their communications skills, helping them put their feelings into words instead of acting out in a negative way.
Our teachers tell us that SEAL is about making the environment comfortable for students to share and help process their emotions. These daily conversations build rapport between teachers and students. Employing what the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence calls a Mood Meter allows students to label, understand and address the cause of an emotion they are experiencing. SEAL can also alert a teacher to a concern that warrants a fol- low up talk with a student to make certain they get the assistance needed.
Further addressing the needs of our students within ACPS, there are Student Support Teams of counselors, nurses, psychologists and social workers within each school. They are there to help address health and wellness needs, social-emotional and behavioral development, as well as academic matters. SST partners with our teachers and other school staff to plan and implement programs that ensure every child thrives and achieves their goals.
Our SST are also there to assist families with concerns including behavioral challenges, mental health and access to school and community resources. In addition, teenagers can visit the Teen Wellness Center at Alexandria City High School, King Street Campus to talk with a counselor.
This spring, ACPS held substance abuse workshops, one of which was delivered in Spanish, at our middle schools and high school, realizing mental health issues such as anxiety and depression can contribute to substance use as a form of self-medication. These workshops served to inform families where they can get help when needed. They also empower families in their efforts to keep their children safe from the dangers of using illegal substances that can be laced with fentanyl which can be deadly.
Amid the pandemic, our Family and Community Engagement Center reached out to our families to provide support needed. For instance, a workshop with Amharic-speaking health professionals was organized, after parents expressed concerns about their children’s mental wellness, such as depression, sleep disturbances and being argumentative. As a cultural stigma can often be associated in addressing mental health related issues, this session let families know they can reach out to school counselors, psychologists and nurses about their children’s mental health needs.
ACPS is committed to addressing the needs of our students using a Multi-Tiered System of Support that is holistic and needs- based. When students display the need for added support in the areas of social, emotional and behavioral development, services and interventions are provided to address their specific needs.
There is never any shame in asking for help. Everyone faces challenges in their life. As basketball legend Michael Jordan once said, “Obstacles don’t have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it.”
The writer is interim superintendent of Alexandria City Public Schools.