In recognition of Mental Health Awareness Month, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools asked 10 rapid fire questions to a mental health specialist get a better understanding of the importance of mental health in student’s lives.
LaShanda McGowan, the interim school social worker at Democracy Prep Agassi elementary campus, gives her insight on mental health awareness and practices in her charter school.
Can you describe mental health in layman terms?
Mental well-being. A state of peace or contentment or happiness and joy.
What role can charter schools play in positively discussing mental health?
Charter schools have the liberty to implement programs that can change lives and communities. They have the capacity to be trailblazers. With the prevalence of school shootings and increase in bullying and violence, an emphasis on mental health is a guaranteed path to school success.
What role does a counselor play in a student’s mental health?
A counselor or social worker has a major role in a student’s mental health. Aside from utilizing evidence based practices to help them, we can be that person the student can count on to give them unconditional positive regard when everything else around them may be crashing down.
At your school, what is the importance of focusing on mental health?
Democracy Prep at Agassi Campus is a K-12 charter school located in the historic Westside of Las Vegas, Nevada, one of the poorest communities in the city. 95% of the student population is comprised of children from the predominately African American and Latino neighborhood and the campus accepts scholars through a lottery process. There is a link between race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and mental health and the result is that our students are exposed to life conditions that negatively impact their physical and mental health.
What message do you try to convey to the school community about mental health?
The primary message I try to convey is that our students have been exposed to a significant amount of trauma in their short lives and that we must be sensitive to this in our approach to education. Some of the experiences shared by our scholars would be difficult for most adults to process and while academics are very important, their mental health must be fortified if we are to see growth.
Why is it important for students to be aware of their mental health? How do you as a counselor try to get students and the school community at-large to positively discuss mental health?
I work with our scholars to identify the emotions they are experiencing and let them know that it is okay to experience them in a safe manner. Culturally, our student population has been taught to be tough, be strong and just “take it”. Historically this was pushed as a mode of survival; surviving slavery, poverty, deportation, racism, discrimination, you name it. Children should not have to carry burdens and bury their emotions. When they do, we see the increase in aggressive and self-harming behaviors. To keep the number of suspensions and expulsions to a minimum thus, alleviating the school to prison pipeline, the discussion on mental health awareness is paramount.
How does being in a positive mental state help your students thrive in and out of the classroom?
A positive mental state makes everything better. The body functions better and is
healthier when our minds are well. The decrease in classroom behaviors and increase in academics is what boosts the student’s morale and self-esteem and impacts other areas of their lives.
What are some coping mechanisms you provide your students when dealing with difficult situations that can affect their mental health?
One of the strategies I use with our scholars is extra time outside. This includes us taking a stroll on our beautiful campus, playing tetherball, basketball or kickball or just talking out in the fresh non- conditioned air. During our longer days, our campus has a shorter recess time of eight minutes. I find the extra time to run and be free is helpful in clearing their cluttered mind. I also use art, journaling, breathing exercises, role play and facilitating child-parent, child- (whoever they need to talk with) conversations.
How does addressing mental health combat the negative stigma surrounding it?
I think of Les Brown who asked the question, “How do you eat an elephant?” and responded, “One bite at a time.”. We must tackle the stigma attached to mental illness precisely and purposefully, especially in the African American community. The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that “African Americans are 20% more likely to experience serious mental health problems than the general population.” (NAMI, 2018). Emphasizing that mental health and wellbeing is as important if not more than physical maintenance is a starting point.
As we celebrate Mental Health Awareness month, what do you feel the national conversation should be surrounding this topic?
Wow, that’s a loaded question. I do believe that a focus on inclusion and kindness is very important right now. Perhaps if our students around the nation felt included there would be fewer school shootings, suicides and homicides. There needs to be healing that takes place and I feel inclusion is the key to that.
LaShanda McGowan is the interim school social worker at Democracy Prep Agassi elementary campus. She is currently a MSW student at the University of Nevada, Reno and holds and M.Ed in Special Education from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Reference: Wang, A. (2012) African American Mental Health Voices from NAMI. Retrieved from https://www.nami.org/Find-Support/Diverse-Communities/African-American-Mental-Health