Mental Health in Schools – what needs to happen to make change?

By: Phoebe Lefebvre

So many people, especially teens, struggle with their mental health and don’t know how to get help.  One in six youth have a diagnosed mental health condition, like depression or anxiety, but only half of those youth receive mental health services. I interviewed Laura Aranda, Oakland School for the Arts’ case manager and Special Education specialist on what can be done to help. 

This is Laura’s fourth year at OSA, and twelfth year as a teacher. After spending her whole childhood feeling depressed, and feeling like a disappointment to her teachers, Laura decided she wanted to create change. She knew that it wasn’t okay for kids to grow up feeling the way she felt, and is devoted to making sure her students know they have good things about them, and that they feel uplifted. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Phoebe Lefebvre: What about working with students has changed how you view mental health?

Laura Aranda: I wouldn’t say it’s changed anything that I view about it, but it’s illuminated to me just how significant it still is. I grew up in the 70s and 80s, and I don’t feel that we’ve really come a long way since then as far as the support that we could provide, and understanding what kids actually do need. 

I don’t feel like we’ve made a lot of headway. Have we gotten a lot more mental health counselors? Sure. Is there more mental health awareness? Sure. Has it made an impact? I don’t think so. I don’t think awareness made the change that people thought it would make. 

PL: What do you think needs to happen to make that change? 

LA: Money would have to be committed to these programs. We don’t need more people coming in to do traditional talk therapy. Support needs to be embedded in a curriculum. Lifting students up needs to be a part of the curriculum. We can’t keep saying it’s going to be solely the mental health counselors’ job to take care of this need. 

If every adult who works in a school puts the student’s mental health, actual needs, confidence and seeing them as humans first, that is how we will start to create change. Because it’s about treating the student as a whole, and not saying, “you’re just a number in my class now, and then you’re going to move on.” It’s seeing children as children as a whole, wanting to be there and putting them first. 

PL: What advice would you offer to students who are struggling with their mental health?

LA: Whatever they need at that time. Sometimes they just need to come in and vent. Focusing on their specific needs, that’s one of the things that’s not being done. Thinking like, “Oh, well, these are the certain things that you say in certain situations.” That’s not real. Just talking and saying these scripted things isn’t listening to what the kid is actually going through, and what they’re actually asking for. 

First and foremost, is always to validate what they’re going through. It’s real, your feelings are real. Don’t just tell kids to go take a walk, do some yoga, or go out in the sunshine and do whatever. So many people will just tell you to snap out of it, and that’s not okay. It’s always individual.

PL: What is the biggest challenge that you’ve faced when helping students? 

LA: Really it’s that I’m only one person. I’ve always wished that I could clone myself in triplicate, but the kid is never a challenge. It’s all the underfunded systems surrounding mental health that are the challenge. We need more funding, we need more space, more time, more support, you know. Nobody really knows what we [case managers, special education specialists] do, nobody really knows what my job is and that lack of understanding creates a lack of support. But the challenge is never the child, the things outside of us are the greatest challenges. 

PL: If someone is really struggling with their mental health, what has the greatest impact on helping them move forward? 

LA: Well, one thing is– I’m always very honest with them, that I also have bipolar disorder, and I’ve had the same struggles. I’m very honest with that, and the kids do like me and respect me because of it. They see that I’m somebody who still struggles, but that I can do so much stuff, and that I have a job I love. But most importantly, they see that my life isn’t over, and they see that if I have this struggle, it doesn’t mean I’ll never get to be anything.  

And it’s also about uplifting, and being like, “Hey, I know you aren’t the best at this, but I saw that you did this thing, and that is really amazing. That is where your genius is.” Impact is created by acknowledging and recognizing even the tiniest little things and changes that can lead to growth in the right direction. It’s helping to remind them that they aren’t bad, they’re great.