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Episode 16: Facilitating Mental Health, Virtual Mental Health Fair

Note: The audio versions of all episodes are available on the DOE Digest webpage.


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Dr. Lamont Repollet: I’m Dr. Lamont Repollet, New Jersey’s Commissioner of Education. Welcome to the DOE Digest, a podcast from the New Jersey Department of Education. It is a platform for information exchange, in which the Department will highlight the work being done by innovative and transformative educators around the state.

I have been working to redesign the Department of Education to what I call NJDOE 2.0. This podcast is one of the ways that we utilize our digital platform to help strengthen teaching, leading and learning, and increase educational equity for the 1.4 million students across New Jersey. I hope you enjoy today’s topic.

Ken: Hello and welcome to the DOE Digest. I’m your host, Ken Bond. I want to start off this episode by saying that all of us at the New Jersey Department of Education wish the best for you and yours during this difficult time.

We wanted to feature a topic that would help us think through how to take care of our own and our students’ mental health as we navigate this new reality. This episode feature a remote interview that I conducted with the South Brunswick School District. We start off the interview by discussing general ways that they’re addressing mental health in this environment of remote instruction.

Then we transition to discuss the amazing virtual mental health fair that they conduced with their students and community from their district.

I hope that you enjoy this discussion as much as I did.

Just a quick note before we start. The first twenty or thirty seconds are a little bit garbled because of some audio connection issues. After that, it clears up.

South Brunswick School District

Ken: Let’s jump in. Could everyone introduce themselves?

Donna: I’m Donna Moreen, one of the nurses from South Brunswick High School.

Aaron: My name is Aaron Millman. I’m the Student Assistance Coordinator at South Brunswick High School and I collaborate with the Leadership Club.

Kara: Um, I’m Kara Henderson. I’m also the Student Assistance Counselor at two middle schools and a high school.

Amy: Hi. I’m Amy Finkelstein. I’m the Supervisor of Student Assistance and Wellness, um K to 12, throughout the district. I help to oversee mental health programs. I supervise the Counseling and Nurse Departments, and any of our Lead Response Team programs as well.

Meryl: Hi. I’m Meryl Orlando. I’m a Family and Consumer Sciences Teacher at South Brunswick High School. Uh, my relationship to this fair is that I’m the, I want to say, the founder of the fair. We started it five years ago and this is one of my passions.

Ken: Excellent. Thank you so much.

So, how have you been approaching mental wellness in this new environment, remotely?

Kara: Sure. This is Kara. Um, I’ll take this one.

So during this time, Aaron, the other SAC, and I, as well as some of the nurses, we created a group called the Wellness Bunch where we met every day for about an hour to kind of discuss how to bring, you know, mental health to everyone. And not only reach the students, but also the families that, you know, are being affected during this time.

So we created a Google Classroom at the high school That's kind of how we started to collaborate and bounce ideas off of each other. We started with interacting with the kids via Zoom. I know Mr. Millman and Nurse Moreen can probably speak more to this. They had some of their meetings were online still, so they still continued to meet with their kids once a week.

I ran my group still once a week. So, we're trying to keep things as normal as possible. I think keeping the kids on a schedule is really, really important during this time.

So I don't know if anyone else wants to add to that.

Donna: This is Donna Moreen. As one of the advisors to the Public Health Club, I have over 200 students in that club, so it's a really broad audience that you can reach. And then with the Incorruptible US, we have about 60 members in that. And then also Aaron’s Youth to Youth Club. He has, I believe, maybe 60 to 80 students.

So, it really helps us that that we're joined with these clubs, these large clubs, that support mental health. That's what they're about. Public health is the big umbrella and, uh, mental health falls under it. Youth to Youth falls under leadership, drug prevention, mental health, and Incorruptible US, of course, anti-vaping and addiction associated with mental health also.

So, we're fortunate that we have these clubs where we can recruit these students to help out, recruit other students with the initiatives that we have in place.

Aaron, you might want to add something to that.

Aaron: So yeah. I mean, I think really bridging the, uh, gap here with regards to our staff and staying connected to all the guidance counselors. It's really easy for kids to kind of hide or kind of detach and that kind of thing. So I really take a lot of effort to kind of reach out and communicate with the guidance counselor, with the nurses. Stay on top of that, kind of scanning and seeing what's going on.

Some of our caseworkers and the child study team have communicated to us the kids that are struggling. So I think it's really staying connective and being aggressive in that respect with regards to that communication. Because we--it's all hands on deck. I mean teachers have their eyes open. Our--our community is phenomenal. Our teachers in our district are wonderful and they care so immensely, uh, as most people who go into education do. They check in. We get feedback from our kids raving about our teachers who are just tuned in to the students’ needs and if they're struggling and having a hard time.

So we really work together as a community and that's what this is gonna take for us to be successful as educators.

Ken: So, the next question I wanted to get into is, “what opportunities have you seen to serve students in your district during this time as you're thinking about ways to reach out to them and really make connections?”

So you talked about those connection points and what you're doing. How do you follow up if you see students who really need an extra hand and some extra help?

Amy: Hi, this is Amy. So I wanted to share too that, um, because I supervise counselors, um, in the younger grades as well. And so what they're doing, um, is checking in very frequently with parents and teachers to figure out who might be struggling, not only academically, but feeling more anxiety and feeling overwhelmed.

A lot of kids are having trouble with managing their own time during the day. And now, as we go longer and longer, their whole schedules are getting thrown off. So they're offering multiple opportunities for kids to virtually join in groups, whether it be counseling, um, that they were already maybe a part of or, something new where they're doing a lunch group with a lot of kids, So that they're able to still, um, Zoom in and have lunch with their friends. And a counselor can more just kind of facilitate a little bit of a conversation or do a game with them.

We've got counselors jumping into morning meetings at the elementary level. And maybe the topic of the morning can be “scheduling your day” or “what is something that you can do for self-care?”. Um, so they've got a lot of really good initiatives going on at the younger levels as well that I just wanted to point out.

Ken: Excellent. Yeah. That's--that's huge to really make sure that you're covering all ages. Because it's important to serve all students, and not just kind of think about those critical times for students who are older, but also critical times as students develop at younger ages to make sure that you're taking care of their mental wellness and mental health. That's excellent.

Amy: I mean, and the other thing as well is that we were talking as a group the other day about what would be the most relevant, um, lesson that we could teach right now. And some of the counselors felt that, right now, focusing again on cyberbullying and online harassment was crucial, especially with all of the remote learning going on. They're gonna be pushing into fifth and fourth grade classes to do a review of online etiquette. What is cyberbullying harassment? What to do if you see it happening?

So again, that goes along with a lot of the work that they've already been doing on HIB {harassment, intimidation, and bullying} and reporting. But just because it's such a focus at this time, we felt it was important to get back personally into the classrooms to do a review.

Ken: Wow. Yeah. I was talking to a colleague today and, you know, there's been a lot of different flexibilities related to remote instruction. But one thing that hasn't become any--any different, or hasn't been changed at all, is the harassment, intimidation, and bullying law. And districts are still responsible for addressing bullying in their district.

Amy: Yes.

Ken: So it's so important that you're taking these steps to ensure that students are able to thrive and not be bullied. And if bullying does occur, that it's addressed. So, it's excellent to hear that you're thinking that way as well.

So I really wanted to transition to talking about the Virtual Mental Health Fair that you held and just where the idea came for the fair. So could someone talk to that for a little bit?

Meryl: Sure. This is Meryl Orlando.

About six years ago, we had a faculty meeting in the summer, in the library, and they rolled out the district goals. And one of them was physical wellness and another one was mental health wellness. And I sat there and thought about the kids that would have trouble finding somebody to help them, or that felt uncomfortable knocking on the door of a counselor's office.

So I envisioned this sort of a…craft mental health wellness fair. If you can picture the setup. Where students would walk from table to table and get information. And they would be able to get those kinds of resources and start those important conversations in the anonymity, being amongst all these other students, so it wouldn't feel uncomfortable for them.

So the first year we did that, we had about 20 presenters at tables and we had about 300 kids come. Last year was our fourth year. We had over 900 kids come. It happens during the day in the spring. And our numbers have increased in terms of the presenters. Our theme is “Stop the stigma, stamp out the stress.” So we really appeal to a wide variety of students and staff.

So we were gonna do it this year, [it] was going to be April 3rd and then all of this happened. And never ones to quit, we don't quit, and “where there's a will, there's a way,” we all decided that we should go virtual this year, and that's what we did.

I also want to mention that I’ve been in touch with lots of other schools. And to date, we've had four: Montgomery High School, one, and Voorhees High School two, and middle school here, two of them. And then my favorites are the two in California. We had a middle school in the Watt section of Los Angeles, held a parent and a child mental health wellness fair. And then a high school in Daly City, California.

I will go anywhere and do anything to speak with interested teachers and staff and social workers. So that was the plan for this year and then we went virtual. It’s really was a quick turnaround, but we did it. We have a wonderful committee, an amazing committee, and we--we made sure that it happened.

Ken: That's excellent.

Can you tell me a little bit about how you figured out how to structure a virtual fair?

Meryl: So just like we do in our in-person fairs. We have a combination of more of the heavy duty hitters, the treatment programs, the counseling services. And then we always add something that helps children with students with stress. And so those are some of the fun things. And we made sure that those were included in this. It's a really, really nice mixture of things.

So I myself did a stress ball video, how to make a stress ball. And this year we also got some, um, sports figures to come and talk about what they're doing, you know, in the midst of all this. How they're keeping in shape. And they gave, uh, our students a shout out. It was really, really great.

Donna do you want to talk about the live part?

Donna: Sure. So the live part was interesting. At one point we were gonna, we weren't gonna do any live presenters, but then we said, “no, no, no. This is that-- this is the part of the fair that we really, really want.” Oh, besides, in addition to now we were able to invite the community.

So, um, I have a background in public health, also a masters. So, uh, that was really big for me, to invite the community to this program. Because we were not able to invite the community, uh, into the school because we wanted to keep, um, the confidentiality in place for the students during the day. We didn't want them, you know, going to one table and then their parent being there also. So it was a great opportunity to invite the community.

But as far as the live presenters go, you know, in brainstorming with the group, we would be on at least once a day. Couple times, you know, texting all times of the night. Eight o'clock at night, “I have this idea, I have that idea.” So we thought that, we just thought about the resources that we have in our community. And because we are so focused on mental health in South Brunswick, we had many, many presenters.

So I had a very good friend who is an emergency room doctor in…Texas, so I asked him if he would do a live presentation and connect it to mental health. And then we were also looking for professionals. Aaron, Aaron, you can speak to Matt Bellas, and also, um, Yuko.

Aaron: Yeah. Matt Bellas is a really interesting guy located in Princeton. And I’ve had seen him speak several times over the years. He speaks at a lot of the conferences, prevention conferences, leadership conferences. And he's a comedian and a psychologist. So what a great combo to really kind of understand. If you want to understand what makes teenagers tick, it's humor. And he just really responds very positively to kids. And the interaction was really good. And he brings in the humor, but he also approaches things from a very serious, uh, way as well. And it's kind of realistic. And the kids just, they appreciate, that I think, honesty and just how he kind of laughs at things in a really fun way.

Um, Yuko Inzana is also a local therapist in our-- in our community, who has just been incredible. And we've relied a great deal on Yuko to interact with kids and provide supports to local families and support our students in the community.

We-- we did this I think too, to throw out there with a real eye on diversity. Recognizing that our community has a large Southeast Asian population, which is really important to me, to kind of structure our fair with that in mind. Recognizing the diversity. Recognizing that strength.

I mean, one of our best strengths of our community is how everybody comes together from a different environment, a different, maybe, religious tradition. And respecting that and honoring that as we--as we educate the community.

Ken: With these types of events, oftentimes it's not just the students in the community who are impacted. Oftentimes something in the session speaks to us personally, or the way that we see students receive something speaks to us personally.

So I just wanted to ask you, what--what during these sessions really impacted you as a result of being a part of them? What were the highlights from being involved?

Amy: I wanted to jump in. And this is Amy. I think for us, I mean one of the highlights was the fact that we did it. Like, we pulled it off and felt like we accomplished it in a very short amount of time. I think the level of support and involvement from our presenters to be willing to do it virtually, they easily could have said like “nah, like that seems like a lot. We don't really want to make a video or go live.” Almost everybody jumped in, um, and either did a video recording or was willing to go live with us or send us information that we could post and share.

And, um, just the amount of excitement around it and the fact that it came together as well as it did. We're not tech teachers but we had a lot of collaboration with the tech department, with our tech educators, our library staff. So many people in our building that were just willing to jump in and help.

And so I think there were so many good things that came out of it that now, even looking forward at doing it--and a lot, hopefully [laughing], we'll be back in school next by next spring to do it live again-- but everybody said, “you know? you should do both. There should always now be a virtual component.” So that people can go in at any time, if they miss anything, if they forgot a resource, and, um, wanted to make a contact. That they can always go back in. And we have it living in our district website and it's just such a great resource now.

Kara: Yeah. This is Kara.

Piggybacking off of what Amy said, I think we really learned how to adapt during this time and really come together, not only to provide these resources and wellness videos to the students, but again their--their siblings, families. Maybe if they have students that are home from college that might need some of these resources as well. And the idea that, you know, even if they couldn't attend virtually on that day, that this--this site is live. And it's gonna be live for the time being, which is--which is definitely awesome.

I would say my personal highlight is, again, reaching not only the high school students, but also some of my middle school students with this. I think prevention is really, really important during this time. I think working, you know, with the sixth to eighth grade as they transition into high school, they need to have these set of coping skills to kind of help them to get through the same thing with college. Um, some of the seniors. So I think that we were able to kind of take this opportunity and do what we normally would do in school. But instead, we were able to reach such a larger audience, which I’m really thankful for.

Aaron: Yeah, this is Aaron.

I felt really, uh, excited about the fact that we had students take part in this. And I think this is crucial for schools out there to involve students, because students need to have a voice. They need to feel empowered. If we're going to develop those leadership skills, which I think in turn really helps those kids who struggle, but also any student who feels like they--they have they're valued in the community.

So we had students participate from our leadership group, Incorruptible US. And they did the connections between vaping, addiction and mental health, which is such an important thing. And I was just blown away. What a great job these kids did. Two of our student leaders from the Incorruptible US group, which again, you know, schools across the state and across the country struggled with vaping concerns this year. And to hear it from their peers, it's such a powerful thing.

And then the one other place we used the student was one of our student leaders, [a] graduating senior, who did the intro. And I thought, “let's put her right at the beginning So she could pull students in, kind of tell them how to use the site.” And obviously us older folks those are the ones that probably need the direction. But at least coming from a student it adds legitimacy to it. Because I think the students look to one another. And that's really all that student empowerment’s about.

Ken: So I wanted to close this out by just asking what advice you have for educators who are looking to do either something like this, or maybe something different, in terms of how to remotely support students and their mental wellness and mental well-being?

Amy: I think (this is Amy), um, one of the things that we've been talking about is how to take any of your lessons and incorporate a mental health element. Um, for example, Meryl teaches a fashion design class. And she was sharing with us the other day about having the lessons based on different colors with clothing, and how your feelings may remind you of a color. Um, I probably should have let Meryl explain this better than I can. But really being able to express yourself through color, um, in fashion.

And we were thinking, “well, that's something, you know, other teachers and other disciplines can do through journaling, and reflection, and talking about even different characters and novels. And really helping to identify and label feelings, and talking a lot about social-emotional skill building.” So we're constantly, you know, looking at ways to share out information.

We now created, not just the website for the fair, but it's another mental health website linked to our home page with information geared toward middle, elementary, and high school. Just tons of resources.

And we also included a page where anybody can go “click for help” as a direct way to click. And say, it's a Google Form, very quick to create, to say “I need help. I’d like to speak to a counselor. I’m in seventh grade. Here's my best contact number.” Any student, or parent, or even a staff member can fill that out. And it will go to one of the crisis team therapists who will get back to them immediately. So there's a very quick way on our—our district website to reach out for help without having to…really like 80 different links to find it.So there's a very quick way on our—our district website to reach out for help without having to…really like 80 different links to find it. 

And the other thing that we talk a lot about is supporting the mental health of our staff, because they're really having a hard time too juggling teaching and their own families and everything going on. And so making sure to do things like promoting the employee assistance program, offering staff support groups from time to time. Counselors and staff are working together. Sometimes just meeting for a Zoom on a Friday. We've got some staff offering virtual yoga sessions and meditation that staff can do together. So making sure that ,you know, we are taking care of our kids, um, but taking care of each other too.

Meryl: Yeah. This is Meryl again.

I just want to make sure [laughing] that credit’s, uh, given where credit's due. So the assignment that Amy was just talking about was a result of me having given my students in that class the job of creating a lesson plan based on color and fashion. And one of the students who is struggling with issues in her home, she came up with that idea. And I thought it was fabulous. So I gave it out as an assignment and full credit to her. And I was thrilled to be able to do that. And the results were amazing.

Donna: Yeah and I’d like to say something about what Amy just said. (This is Donna again, one of the nurses). It's really important that we have the support from administration about mental health. And we have it, you know, it all the way up to our superintendent. He's--he completely supports us as far as mental health goes, and so do all the other administrators. That's why we're able to do what we do.

Ken: Excellent. So thank you so much for--for spending time with me and for talking about this today. And I just wanted to close by seeing if there's anything else that anyone wanted to talk about, that they were hoping I would ask about, or that's just been on their mind during the interview.

Kara: This is Kara. I just, you know, want to thank you guys for recognizing us. Um, I think, you know, as we all mentioned, we worked really, really hard. And I think that we're all so passionate about this, especially during this time. Making sure that no one's fallen through the cracks. We all wish, you know, things could be back to normal. But if we focus and take it one day at a time, that, I think that we're all going to get through this.

And again, thank you so much for this opportunity.

Chorus of voices: Thank you. Thank you so much for having us on. Thank you. Thank you very much.

Ken: Thank you so much for--for everything.

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Ken: Thank you for listening to this episode. We're excited to talk on the #NJEdPartners May Twitter chat on May 19th at 8:30 pm about this topic of mental health in a remote setting. Please join us.

We look forward to continuing to connect and engage with you about educating the 1.4 million students around the state and hope to talk to you on the #NJEdPartners third Tuesday Twitter chat.

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