It’s a Monday morning and summer break for schools is finally here. But Gustavo Garcia-Rojas looks at his calendar with a bit of concern. He has two Zoom calls and a phone call scheduled with teens needing help. With tensions as high as they are in the United States right now, there’s a good possibility that more of these calls for help will pop up at any moment.
Garcia-Rojas is among dozens of specialists from the nonprofit Wellness Together who were brought on to address and improve youth mental health and resiliency in participating middle and high schools as part of Blue Shield of California’s BlueSky program. Students are now on summer break, but the work continues, with counseling sessions being conducted online via Zoom, FaceTime and phone calls.
Addressing racial tensions
The timing is of the essence, as Black Lives Matter protests continue across the country and around the world in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota.
“My students are really feeling the tensions that are occurring around the whole world right now,” said Garcia-Rojas. “These are moments in our lives that we must take very seriously for the ripple effects in the future will leave individuals with more trauma.”
Blue Shield of California recently issued a new round of grants to Wellness Together to support more counseling sessions over the summer.
“We see this as a foundational need and something that goes to the core of what our BlueSky initiative is all about,” said Antoinette Mayer, Blue Shield of California’s senior director of Corporate Citizenship.
Garcia-Rojas is relieved to have the resources. “The current events that are occurring in our world currently will have a lasting impact, not only the students and families but also on teachers, staff, and school districts. As mental health specialists, it will be important to stay informed, alert, and take care of our students, our teachers and ourselves during the summer break so that we can continue the work when we rejoin on campus, hopefully in the fall.”
BlueSky completes its freshman year
The BlueSky initiative was launched in the fall of 2019 and saw some early success, with more than 2,500 counseling sessions recorded in the first six months. Then March arrived, and so did COVID-19, which forced schools to close and students to learn from home.
Garcia-Rojas said making the move to virtual sessions wasn’t easy. “We went from having the luxury – if you want to call it that – of being face to face with these students to talking to them from afar, and that unearthed some challenges.” For instance, some young people weren’t as forthright with their feelings when they were speaking from home with parents and other family members in the house.
There was also the issue of young people who experience trauma in the home. “Sheltering in place can really exacerbate the problems. It definitely has an impact on how we do our jobs and how we think about creating safe-spaces for the youth who are actively seeking help,” Garcia-Rojas said.
A digital divide
Distance learning also revealed an old, yet pervasive challenge – a lack of access to technology in low-income neighborhoods. Garcia-Rojas said many of the students in his school simply don’t have laptops, mobile devices and/or WiFi service, putting them at a serious disadvantage when it comes to getting the care they need.
“I grew up in a low-income household and know what that’s like.” He said. “As we continue to navigate and get creative with our work, it is vital to make sure that we are also being equitable, so that we are being able to give all families the same opportunities."
Once again, Blue Shield is stepping up to address the problem, announcing thousands of dollars in grant money that will go directly to boosting technology and connectivity in Alameda and San Diego Counties. “We will continue to support this issue in order to enhance youth academic experiences and social connections,” Blue Shield’s Mayer said.
It’s estimated that the average caseload for school counselors in California is about 600 students each which is double the national average. There is no doubt that doing good work in this space is tough, but Garcia-Rojas said he is not deterred.
“I do feel like I’m counseling with one arm tied behind my back sometimes – especially after the pandemic hit,” he said. “But young people have so much to add to society. Addressing and validating their fears and their hopes now – and letting them know it’s perfectly normal to feel upset, sad and even angry - will only lead to more positive outcomes in the future. That is what keeps me making those Zoom calls and phone calls every day.”