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Helping kids cope through the pandemic

Nicole Maes-Gonzales, left, and Katrina Koehler are co-executive directors of Gerard’s House in Santa Fe. The nonprofit deals mostly with grieving children and families, and has preventative and “post-ventative” programs for kids who have considered suicide. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

While children are shown to be less susceptible to the coronavirus than adults, they’re not immune to the mental health effects that have come with isolation from friends and family, the absence of familiar support systems, dramatic adjustments to their lifestyle, or the loss of a loved one.

Now, with schools about to open up to in-person learning next week, some mental relief is in sight as kids can look forward to seeing their friends again, connecting with social groups and adult mentors, and getting back to some semblance of normalcy.

At Santa Fe Public Schools, Superintendent Veronica García says she’s looking forward to kids returning to the classroom next week after more than a year of remote learning. Not only is in-person learning a better way to educate children, but also having that human connection on a daily basis will benefit the mental health of students, as well as teachers.

“It’s not the same when you’re doing it virtually the whole time. I think for all of us being online all day long is very taxing, and really hard on kids and teachers,” she said. “I think our children are becoming more disengaged because they need that social interaction, they need that contact with different adults during the day.”

Sue O’Brien, director of student wellness for Santa Fe Public Schools, says that teenagers, in particular, have had a particularly hard time with the isolation brought on by the pandemic.

“What I’m hearing from school counselors, nurses and people in the wellness teams is that students are sharing with them, particularly with high school students, that they are feeling anxious and stressed,” she said. “Their social lives suddenly changed last March and they’re feeling isolated. We’re social beings, so that definitely has had an impact on students.”

Students who had been involved in extracurricular activities, such as band, sports teams and student organizations, haven’t had the support system that keeps them connected to friends, classmates and mentors, she said. The pandemic has robbed of them of experiencing such cherished school traditions as homecoming, prom and graduation in the same way they’ve always been celebrated. And juniors and seniors, especially, are stressed out about taking tests, passing classes and making plans for their post-graduation future.

“And a lot of times, the families themselves are stressed,” O’Brien added.

Many students in the Santa Fe school district, particularly those in Southside schools, come from low-income or impoverished families. Older students often take on jobs, if they can find them, to help add to the household income. During remote learning, O’Brien said she heard stories of older students taking on the role of teacher with their younger siblings.

Tapping their ‘superpowers’

O’Brien said the SFPS wellness team works to identify students under stress, or suffering from anxiety or depression through a referral system.

Counselors meet with students and their families to help them navigate their struggles using different strategies.

“So, we try to decide, how do we transform that anxiety into resilience? And part of that is giving them the tools to do that,” she said, adding that the objective is to get kids to recognize the “superpowers” they possess.

“We’re not going to fix whatever it is that is causing that stress and anxiety, we can’t fix that,”she said. “But we can give them strategies that can help.”

O’Brien said grounding strategies, such as deep breathing, mindfulness and implementing Zen habits, can help kids cope with stress and anxiety. Self-care is critical, she said, and taking the time to rest is also highly recommended.

Diverting attention to another task or a hobby can help them take their mind off their worries, she said, and having human interaction, particularly with an adult, is also important for kids.

“Kids need someone to hear them, and to talk to,” she said.

While studies have shown an increase in emergency room hospitalizations nationwide, there’s little evidence of a significant increase in suicide rates among children during the pandemic. Yet, they still happen.

O’Brien said that when the wellness team identifies a student at risk, they may be referred to Presbyterian Medical Services for a same-day assessment, or recommend that the family take the child to another hospital for a screening.

The school district also partners with Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center, Southwest Family Guidance Center, The Sky Center, Mountain Center and Gerard’s House, O’Brien said.

Creating opportunity

Gerard’s House works primarily with grieving kids and families, offering suicide prevention programs, crisis response services and support groups, as well as assistance to parents and caregivers.

Executive Director Katrina Koehler said one of the most important things young people who feel depressed or suicidal can do is to open up and talk about it, particularly with an adult.

“Kids who have experienced trauma in their lives through abuse, neglect or different types of losses are helped by connection, the presence of love, freedom and empowerment. Talking about it, opening up the lines of communication, can help.”

Gerard’s House has a suicide prevention program, but also what she called a “post-vention” team that works to steer kids away from suicidal thoughts and get their lives back on track.

Part of the post-vention approach is a support group called Semicolon that Koehler has co-led with The Sky Center’s Bob Kristy for the past five years.

“Because your sentence could have ended, but it goes on,” she explained.

Koehler echoed O’Brien in saying the aim is to tap into the “power” kids have within them that they may not know they have.

“In the five years that we’ve been co-leading this group, we’ve been amazed to see the wisdom, passion and power of kids in the group. They often have shame about being depressed, but what we see is the incredible strength within them,” she said.

Koehler said the moment a child feels like they want to take their own life is a powerful moment.

“It’s like standing up and saying something needs to change here,” she said. “That power, that drive, is a really big power and, when it’s turned from self-destruction into a force in the world, that’s when it creates opportunity.”

Talking about it summons the force, Koehler said. And parents should take the time to check in with the children and let them know they have someone they can talk to.

“When adults are stressed, they may not realize that kids don’t know that they have an invitation to share things or ask questions. Kids can be holding secret struggles and secret questions, and they may look at mom and say, ‘She’s dealing with enough.’ Let kids know, ‘If there is anything you’re worried about, you can come to me, I’m here.'”

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