COVID, Education & Mental Health

 We're honored to host this important conversation between Lillian Hsu (member of the founding cohort of the Deeper Learning Equity Fellows) and Christian Martinez -- both of Oakland's Latitude High School -- as they grapple with helping staff, students, parents and the larger community deal with the mental health issues associated with COVID, many of which preceded the pandemic itself. A transcript is provided below but, as is often the case, is imperfect in places and fails to capture the raw emotion of the audio recording in others. We encourage you and others to take the time to listen to this dialogue, and conduct your own in your home communities. 

Christian: we are in this COVID 19 scenario 2020, and some of the issues that are rising up amongst our community are the issues of mental health. First of all, how are you coping with Covid-19 and mental health on your end?

Lillian: I think for me personally I think I've gone through a full range of emotions and I think especially in the first few weeks I think something that's been really important for my own mental health as well as thinking about the mental health of our team is just how do we allow ourselves to experience that full range of emotions rather than pretending they don’t exist or trying to stuff them down. So I think that’s really been key for me. Just like: experiencing it and noticing it and then figuring out how to navigate that.

Christian: Yeah myself, I gotta say the first two weeks were the really hard weeks for me because it was the unknown uncharted territory like I don't know what to do; define what the new normal looks like for me. But also for people like don't have the privilege to be at home or have their own space and I'm always kind of going back to that just thinking about that scenario and a lot of that has to do with like a lot of our kids our community. One of the big challenges that we have in a lot of homes in our that we hit in with our students is that they live in small places and that kind of starts to bubble up a lot of different issues are happening. I feel like mental health when it comes down to like Covid-19 and the mental health that the normal that people are seeing is one layer, but there are other layers that comes with that.

Lillian: I think that what you were speaking to is that this moment in time brings together kind of compounds right like a lot of the different factors, whether it’s economic, whether it’s medical disparities; whether it's like preexisting mental health disparities like immigration status. I think that in some ways it compounds it, it compresses, it puts it into a crucible and in some ways magnifies all of those pieces at this moment.

Christian: I think it’s definitely devastating that a lot of people are going through those scenarios, but also it’s giving light to making sure that we are continuing to serve those community needs at a different level now and even digging deeper into what are some different ideas that we can come up together and continue to just serve. Any thoughts of what has been working so far and what hasn't been working that we have tried?

Lillian: I think that the schools and I think one thing that we kind of erred on the side of early on was just trying to give students as much consistency as possible, and I think I appreciated how our teams mobilized under a really short amount of time to try to set things up quickly for our students so that there wouldn’t be a giant lag time between when we last saw them in person and then when we would connecting with them. I think we erred on the side of just letting students have a regular rhythm; able to connect with these adults in their lives that they’ve come to know and realize how to really care about them in a genuine way this year. And so I think that all of the research about how to be thoughtful around issues of trauma is to try to give students those rhythms and rituals that they can count on as a way of giving some sense of stability and consistency. So I think that’s on factor. What else, Christian, do you feel like we've been trying to be attentive to?

Christian: I just feel that from the get-go the consistency that we are providing to the kids, just going back to that lens; a lot of them don't have that consistency at home so when it’s a regular day at school they come to school they're there for like 8 hours or so and that's the consistency they give throughout the day so if we continue to provide consistency even though it's through distance learning a quick check in, I'm sure that education is looking different now for a lot of people. But that consistency of checking in with a caring adult who's there, who's showing up on the screen; it just gives consistency to that person that they are not alone. Yeah, I agree with you. I just feel like starting from the beginning that something that's going to drive an engine for this social distancing education.

Lillian: I know you spoke before about just how this situation also illuminates different disparities that are already existing in our community and I know that you spoke early on about how your mom was still an essential worker and having to go into work each day. How have you navigated those feelings and also navigated that safety for your family and then how has that impacted your thinking about our students?

Christian: To this point, my mom and my brothers are still continue to go to work and it also kind of checks me: I got to check my own privilege and know that they're putting their life every time they go outside and I'm always thinking about this idea if they are going out and they are just putting themselves in danger and coming back -- and I talked her all the time about this and she tells me “that is my normal everyday like I've been doing this for a long time.” So I don’t really see a shift. It's just amplified now because there's a lot of people who are now suffering that idea. So being undocumented you kind of roam in this idea of survival mode all the time. And now it's just being amplified to where people are just seeing, so that kind of brought a lot of light to my own story, my family’s story -- just knowing that if you are undocumented you are always kind of in the survival mode. I feel like COVID-19 is a deadly thing - the way my mom’s brother compares it: it’s like we've been surviving all this time, but now it's just that now it's being amplified. I don't know if that makes sense but, it's like a different layer of understanding surviving life. Yeah, it's been hard though. It's been really hard because I navigate this idea of like I work in a school setting where I’m able to work from home very comfortably and seeing them go to work and see my brother go out with a mask and with gloves and talking to his co-workers and some of his co-workers we're in the hospital because there were they had covid-19. And that kind of brought us to: “Wow, what is going on?” I wonder about their families and their kids. Yeah, it just feels like it hits home and having conversations with them to unpack how they're feeling is key.

Lillian: I wonder about that, right, because I think what you're also speaking to is that even when we were in school, we might have had a sense of some of the challenges that our students were supporting around at home but I think that because we are now because we have that daily glimpse we are connecting with them I'm on the homefront we're having even more insights into what's happening on a daily basis. And students are letting us know: “Hey, I can’t join the Google Hangout today because I'm caring for a sibling; because this is happening with my family.” There's another layer that's coming into the equation and I think that it just brings us closer to what’s happening on the homefront. In this moment I feel so much respect and pride for so many of our students who are kind of navigating this space for the first time and having to step into these roles that they’ve not had to before. But I also worry about them and whether they have the space to be able to process a lot of those feelings and navigate all of the responsibility. So, what are your thoughts about that?

Christian: That’s something that I also wonder about. As an adult, having friends around in college so I'm able to just call them or get on a video call and just get with them about how I'm feeling. And also having strategies to just channel my energy or how I’m feeling in a certain way so I'm able to feel human and feel myself again at the end of the night. I wonder about kids who are new to this distance learning and having small spaces and just having a lot of challenges before coronavirus. And now this just amplifies this again. I wonder if they have people to go to, like a parent, an adult figure, a friend, someone they can just talk about how they're feeling throughout the circumstances. Even before coronavirus a lot of kids would just push back from conversations that were real and genuine about how they're feeling and now it makes me wonder if they're opening up or they just like closing themselves up and staying in the room. My brother has a high schooler and he says that my nephew just wants to be in the room all the time, playing video games. So that also brings to light that many may feel depressed because your friends are not there. The social connection that you have throughout the day is not there anymore. So learning how to unpack that with someone makes me wonder how people are feeling.

Lillian: I feel like there's a lot in what you just said to unpack. I thought about this too with a lot of the social distance, shelter-in-place requirements they've encouraged people to not go outside – only walk in their neighborhoods -- but depending on what neighborhood you live in, you have different access to be able to walk in safe spaces or being able to like go to a nearby park or a hiking trail. So I think in terms of one coping strategy that I see a lot of adults using right now, a lot of our students may not have access to just in terms of where they’re able to get physical exercise or just be out in the sunshine in their immediate neighborhoods. But I also think that this other piece that I am thinking a lot about in this moment is what I think I shared with you, Christian, that when I was growing up you know when I was an adolescent I think my dad was definitely dealing with different kinds of mental health pieces throughout my childhood and adolescence but it was never something that was diagnosed and back then we didn’t talk about therapy and just getting him help with those pieces but as a result what that resulted in was a lot of tension that manifested in terms of family dynamics that weren’t always healthy. And I can only imagine what it would have been like for me as a teenager to have to shelter in place with my dad, like going to school was actually an escape from that and having to on a daily basis be in proximity with someone who himself was struggling with mental health challenges and not being able to support them but then also it impacting the overall mood and the overall level of tension and level of stress in the family, I think that that’s something that I’m thinking a lot about. For a lot of our students being able to come to school each day was like being able to just have some space away from different family dynamics that might be challenging. And now we're all sheltering in space and proximity and there might be some dynamics there that students and families don't have at this moment resources to unpack and be able to work through and that's something I'm thinking a lot about. As a school how do we support with those pieces? Could we have our counselor in this moment supporting not just kids but also supporting families to talk through what they're going through so that the parents themselves know it's okay to recognize that this is a moment when there's a lot happening. They might be experiencing all different kinds of feelings. And for our counselors to be giving families also some strategies to maybe play with to be able to navigate that during this time.

Christian: Yes to all that. To the first piece about about having access to spaces where they can go for a walk or go for a run like that is something that by the third week of being in place like not being able to go outside I tried to go for a run around my block, you know I live in East Oakland, so I go for a run and literally like as soon as I start running around like this guy unloaded an AK47 by the train track and that just makes me wonder like that looks so different than scenarios where the normal for people is going outside just having that space so again it brings me back to the families and the kids and how being stuck at home and if you don't have access to transportation and if you are not able to walk around your neighborhood because it's just dangerous all the time, not just right now, how is that impacting your mental health. Into the other angle like being at home stuck with people who are not diagnosed about mental health like I feel like that is also a big issue and it is hard to name it and in a lot of our communities when it comes down to mental issues, that it's already a taboo. As soon as you mention it people already start thinking “I'm not crazy.” Now with all these things happening there is this other layer because people can easily blame Coronavirus. I just feel like it's so stressful because they already don't have access a lot of families to you know mental health.

Lillian: I’m going to pause for one second, Christian, and stop.

Christian: What are some of the strategies that you are using that you might think will be helpful for like families and students to utilize during this hard time?

Lillian: I think first and foremost we can we help maybe encourage family to just carve out space for conversation between the kids and the parents during this time, I mean some honest conversation, but in a space when they can feel calm and just be able to create room for both the parents and students to express what they're thinking and feeling. I know that we have been having the virtual town halls as a school on Facebook Live as a community and this Thursday we’re having a focus on mental health and bring on a clinician as well as a school psychologist clinic to answer our parents’ questions and I think one of the pieces that I wonder in this moment what we can do is create space for dialogue. In an ideal world we could have a therapist for every student to be able to process your feelings possible but I think that there can also be time for our clinician to connect with as many students as possible but I also just wonder how maybe there are some simple strategies that Danielle and Karen and our student support team can share with families about how to invite dialogue. I think in this moment in time there are just so many uncertainties and so much anxiety and so I feel like it’s an opportunity to actually connect in a really human way and so that's one thought I have is how we can encourage and give parents tools to be able to facilitate some of those dialogues.

Christian: For me one of the things that comes into mind is to just go back to the hierarchy of needs, the Pyramid of Maslow Theory and I think about the psychological needs and then I think about the safety needs and the loving and longing needs. I wonder if during this time in our society and wanting to just be: if we can create like a checklist where people are able like, “okay, this right here definitely have. This right here: definitely have it.” and have conversations with people in your home and in that would create some type of dialogue around like what does it mean to have air, water, food that we have all those things, “yes we do,” if not, than that kind of segues into like reaching out for help. That can be school or neighbors or just community members that can help you with that and kind of give him that road map for people to kind of navigate and also when it comes down to like “safeties;” do you have personal security. If you say no to this have a conversation about why you feel like you don’t have personal security. Is it because your employment, your resources; and kind of help people.

Lillian: Yes, I love that. Kind of a checklist to navigate in this time and then also just to continue to invite folks to reach out in different ways and not have to keep those pieces silent if there are folks available to help support with those different pieces. I think what I'm also just wondering about; I think as we’re hearing about more families who are being impacted where there might be family members who are either experiencing the disease or may be passing away from the disease and then we’re processing both grief as well as fear. What are your thoughts about that and how we as a school can be supporting those students with complicated feelings?

Christian: I think getting ahead of the wave because I'm sure it’s going to hit someone really close, probably already did, someone passing away due to the virus – so, it’s starting those conversations through small groups. Maybe again giving people like information and data around, like, this can happen to anyone, to you, to your neighbor. So it brings a sense of like “I have to talk to people about this” and that's one of the ways that I myself navigate in life just like knowing that it realistic, like it can happen tomorrow so making sure that I'm ready to have that conversation if it comes in place. So starting those conversations with people and not in an alarming way, but saying “this can happen to anyone. We’ve just got to make sure we're taking care of each other.” Yeah that's what I have on that.

Lillian: That’s really heavy. I think that one of the pieces in this moment for me that I think a lot about, especially when this started, I think that we’re grappling with big, existential questions right now because there is this sense of like: I don't know, it really could hit anyone. As much as we’re all taking different precautions. I think grappling with your mortality is really huge, right? I think about that a lot right now. I’m thinking about the ways in which I interact with my own children. I don’t want to have to think this way, but wondering: hey, if something were to happen to me in the next half year, what’s the memory I want my kids to have of me. And I think that those are kind of frightening but they’re also clarifying and I wonder what do I really value, what is most essential in this time. And I wonder how we can continue as a school, too, to use this as an opportunity for students to get more insights into themselves. It is an opportunity as an entire society to be doing that introspection and so how can we also lift up for our students about their discovering about their toolbox and what they're capable of, that they may not have realized before. How can we also lift up not just the pain points but also lift up the bright spots. Lift up all the spaces in which our students are recognizing amazing things about themselves and their families during this time, too.

Christian: I really like that.

Lillian: I think one of the things that I am really as a school leader looking ahead to the month ahead of us right like it’s uncertain when we might reopen and – as a staff -- we've been talking about how the different scenarios of what school might look like in the fall and how it might look really foreign to what we have ever experienced before. We’ve been following the stories from Denmark, and China and other spaces about what schools currently look like and it feels really strange the idea that kids may not get to that they talk to each other at lunch, and having to be a certain number of feet away from each other, and these staggered schedules and so one of the things that feels particularly hard about this disease is that in times of anxiety, in times of loss people tend to want to go to each other for comfort. We find solace from being close to other human beings so what’s so hard about this virus is that it physically distances us. So it prevents us from potentially finding some peach in each other's embrace. And so one of the things that I'm thinking a lot about as we plan ahead for the fall and potentially having to go back to school under very strange circumstances is: how as a team do we keep alive and really sustain the sense of joy and love and curiosity and wonder that we want to have in our school’s community under these very strange conditions. And knowing that our students may be coming back with a lot of things to unpack, how can we best prepare our team to be ready for that.

Christian: Yeah. That’s a big question. I feel like this coming year, starting in the fall, starting in the summer is really going to test a lot of educators and just people in general who navigate life with students and they’re the role model. Because it’s going to test you as a human, your values and what you stand and what you believe in. And this is the point where you become a cheerleader. You become the person that's going to be bringing this to the finish line and and I'm with you. I feel like we got to continue to elevate and curate and give people that hope that this is going to end and it's going to be somewhat regular and normal but we got to have some ideas in place so we can have a head start for that. I'm really thinking like videos and social media -- it won't replace the touch and the feeling and being face-to-face with someone but it definitely helps you connect with people at a distance. So I'm always thinking about this concept of videos and storytelling and how can it really like be embedded into what you’re doing in everyday life.

Lillian: I’ve heard you say, Christian, that creative expression is one of the places that you have gone to during this time to help keep you calm and sane, so I've been thinking a lot about that for our students as well and just like how what always touches me is the depth of human ingenuity and people’s capacity to be creative and inventive and expressive and innovative. And so I think that as a team we’ve been trying to nurture for adults on staff the way that we were talking about this fall semester, we did that exercise where we first started by really thinking about what’s at the essence for us as educators, no matter what the circumstances, what matters the most to us. When we had our team generate “how might we” prompts – this whole idea of how might we during this time still help students really dream big about themselves. You spoke to how might we use this time to really educate students about different patterns of oppression. I think that knowing that we cannot predict what the fall semester will look like how do we connect to what our essences are in terms of why we’re in the profession, why we are in schools, and being part of these sacred communities and then how do we inspire within our staff, and also within our students a deep sense of hopefulness and a deep sense of tapping into our creativity.

Christian: Creativity is what keeps me motivated everyday when I wake up. I just want to create something new and I'm always thinking about that I have the access and the tools but what about the kid that doesn't. Or the person who doesn't. So I'm always thinking how can we leverage and put people in place, or reaching out and tapping into those resources. I’m always thinking about that.

Lillian: What do you feel like is left unsaid? What have we been afraid to speak to? Where haven't we gone that you feel gets at this question around grappling with mental health and equity during this time?

Christian: I think we said it but I just wanted to lift it again. I feel like there are different layers when it comes to mental health. I wouldn’t say that there is the typical family who is privileged and has mental health problems at home but they still have access to different thing. But at Latitude one of the things that is at the core, one of the things for myself is that we go beyond that. There are families that need that and more -- three times more than that -- and I feel that sometimes it gets misplaced or a lot of people just don't see it because it just becomes generalized. “Oh, they need mental health.” Yes. They need mental health AND they need support with food because that's what’s tagging mental health. It’s just a domino effect. They need help with their employment because they don't know how to navigate, they might be undocumented. There's different layers that are kind of feeding into this mental health big umbrella and I feel that as a school there’s so much you can do. But also just giving those resources out and being a thought partner with a parent that’s going through this and saying “let me tell you. This is what I did. I’m not saying you should to it, but it’s what I did and it helped me.” Like going out for a run. All of these pieces.

Lillian: Yeah. I think that’s the part I wrestle with, Christian. Even when we do the Facebook live townhalls or Google Hangouts, often time families who have the bandwidth and potentially have the privilege to be able to show up as part of these conversations. But I think that there are families who we might invite to these conversation and I think we should keep trying to reach out and all different ways to folks know to “please reach out to us. Let us know if there are any ways that we can support. “ But I think that there are still families who are grappling with things that they may not be comfortable sharing with us. How do we really make sure that we’re creating access in those ways, not letting those blind-spots from keeping up from making sure that there is equitable access.

Christian: The way that I see it and giving access to people is to information that's going to help them is like putting it out in different source of media, like: a podcast and sending it via text to all the parents, voice memos saying “hey, you have to listen to this because it’s going to help you with this” and then just blast it out because their attention to stuff is just limited right now because they have navigate with a lot of other stuff. A five-minute “hey, this is what’s happening” really quick so that they can kind least get it is the system, the way, I personally do it with my community members. People that I know, I just tell them: “Oh, you’re going through this? This is what you need.” And I think in my head I only have the time before the elevator closes its doors. So there’s this theory that you hop in an elevator, the door closes and before the third floor you just have like 15 seconds before that door opens. You just have the attention of that person for that amount of time and you’re just giving them the big idea so they can always come back for more information. I don't know if that makes sense but just saying that putting it out there in a small dosage that way.

Lillian: Yeah. I love that. You know, we’re having the Facebook live virtual town this week, but how do we distil that into a five minute version. Or how do you distill that until three sides. Something simple and punchy but then people can take away what they’re going to take away. Multiple different kinds of media as well as continuing to really think through all the different ways of communicating around it.

Christian: Yeah I want to do emailing and Instagram. You know how we did that post that promoted for like 2 months and you got a lot of bandwidth with parents and they were able to see. Now, just creating something visual that talks about – “this is what you need to do” and maybe Instagram can run it for free during this time. That way its up and running, targeting specific zip codes so you can just like see it. It would just be in their face.

Lillian: I think the other question that also brings up to me is: how do we, during this time, also equip our teachers to feel, like, I think that right now there's a shortage also of mental health professionals, and so all of us on the front lines interacting with kids and families need to have that information too. And so how can we also access that so our teachers feel confident sharing that with their kids and sharing that with families, as well.

Christian: I think putting together a quick visual of what a teacher or just staff member can respond to to circumstances that are happening outside, like: what can you say that feels loving and caring, but also feels worthy of pushing, too. There’s so much information and misinformation out there about the virus that it gets people. So making sure that we are giving them resources, too. But definitely I agree with you just giving them tools so they can feel equipped, so that when people ask them “hey, this is what I'm doing” … how do I respond? What do I tell them? and how do I funnel this to people, too.

Lillian: Anything else you think that we should really talk to?

Christian: At the end of the day, I just feel like patience with people and always reassuring people that that you care for them and you’re here them, and staying in the moment has helped me a lot, and has helped me here in my household. Knowing that we are here right now – let’s not think about what if it gets worse or start thinking about these theories.

Lillian: I feel like more than anything else in this moment being able to hold onto our humanity and being able to connect to each other on a really deeply human level, even if we can’t do it in person -- that feels like really centering and really important by way of how we can build each other up.