Ending the stigma: San Diego Unified all-in for mental health awareness

Posted: Thursday, May 23rd 2019


Every day, roughly 100,000 students attend San Diego Unified schools, interacting with educators in meaningful ways. These daily interactions provide school staff with unique opportunities to support students’ well-being, including the importance of mental health.

The start of many mental health conditions most often occurs in adolescence, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Half of individuals living with mental illness experience onset by the age of 14. This number jumps to 75% by the age of 24. Yet it’s precisely during these crucial younger years that mental health is often overlooked, and also when stigma is most common. San Diego Unified staff and students are working to change that.

This May, the district has joined leading organizations across the nation in recognizing Mental Health Awareness Month, and is working to raise awareness, provide support and educate school communities about the importance of mental health.

“Educators are pivotal in understanding onset behaviors of students and supporting their social and emotional learning,” said Noemi Villegas, who oversees the district’s Integrated Youth Services division. “It’s important for all educators to continue to foster positive relationships with students by nurturing programs that prevent and highlight the importance of mental health in children and youth. With May as Mental Health Awareness month, we have a unique opportunity to inform parents and students of the resources available in their schools.”

The district has worked with local mental health providers to compile a robust list of resources and information, making them available online for students, staff, and parents.

In many cases, however, the best resource of all is simply the care and support of a school community.

One student, a 10th grader at Hoover High School, shared the story of how school helped her set goals and move forward while battling depression.

“It all started in middle school when I didn’t have my dad, so I closed myself off to my mom and to everyone,” she recalled.  “I was really bad and rude to everyone and started cutting myself… I would think suicidal thoughts, I was always wondering, when am I going to die?”

Fortunately, she found a motivating light in the form of her education. With support from staff at her schools, she was able to create a positive experience from attending class and reaching academic goals.

“In 8th grade, I really wanted to promote even though I had really bad grades.   Everyone started helping me, teachers saw how much I wanted to change.  I was promoted and it felt really good because I knew I was doing something for myself,” she said. “I knew just waking up, like standing up, and coming to school, even though it was really hard for me, would make a difference.”

Sabrina Cox, an Intervention Counselor at Hoover, knows stories like this one are not uncommon. “Many students just need to feel supported and listened to, and when that happens, that’s when their mindset shifts,” Cox says. “When they gain that awareness, that’s when their strength and positivity really begin to come out. All of our students have the capability to say, ‘I can overcome my challenges, I have the strength to do this.’”

In earlier grade levels, mental health awareness can be even more important. One in five youth live with a mental health condition including depression, anxiety, or behavioral disorders, according to CDC research, and younger children often struggle to identify or express the challenges they may be facing. Proper awareness allows schools to recognize these challenges and provide the social-emotional guidance young learners need.

Golden Hill K-8 Principal Steve Elizondo shared an example of this support in action. “We have an elementary student who has made tremendous progress in managing his emotions, feeling a sense of belonging, and building self-efficacy,” he said.

“These positive changes have come from consistent love and dedication from our entire school team. His teachers know him well, as a student and as a person. They constantly support his successes with effective praise, and redirect his behaviors by providing consistent language and high expectations. Our counselor teaches social-emotional skills weekly in his classroom. We have also placed him in a reading intervention class, which has resulted in him being successful in reading for the first time in his life. He comes to school much happier and with a much stronger sense of self-worth. I feel that his whole life trajectory has changed!”

Success stories like this one at Golden Hill are increasingly becoming the norm, thanks to the combined efforts of counselors, teachers, administrators, and parents alike. But fellow students have an equally important role to play when it comes to mental health awareness.

"One of the greatest challenges in supporting our youth in learning about mental health is eliminating stigma,” says Villegas. “Students, alongside educators and families, can play a big part in this. Speaking openly about mental health is so important. Allowing students to find their voice in talking about who they are, their struggles, their strengths and assets is fundamental, as we promote culture of collective care.

"We teach our students that mental health begins with them, their awareness, their advocacy and support to one another. We have seen incredible examples of student leadership when we talk about mental health and address the importance of early education and intervention. We teach our students that it only takes one, and THEY can be the one to make a difference."

The district’s mental health awareness initiative calls on students to lead the way in ending the stigma of living with a mental health illness, by asking them to:

  • Learn and share the facts about mental health, especially if you hear something that isn't true
  • Treat your peers who may have a mental health condition with respect, just as you would anyone else
  • Refuse to define anyone by their condition or using labels such as "crazy"

Ultimately, mental health awareness allows San Diego Unified schools to foster academic excellence through educating the “whole child,” providing every student with the support they need to succeed.

“I feel that social-emotional support and learning is the foundation of any successful school,” says Elizondo. “When students feel loved, respected and supported, they will thrive.”

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