Features

Coronavirus and mental health: an interview with the Counseling Department

by Arianne Nguyen | May 19, 2020

Counselors Ms. Chrissy Guerra and Mr. Aaron Burney discuss college and freshman counseling during remote learning

What does the counseling department look like during remote learning? Many students might respond to this question by imagining the glass-walled lobby of the counseling center, with its lights off and the doors to its offices closed, looking out on an equally empty Sobrato Commons. But it’d be a mistake to think that the people who make up the counseling department aren’t working as hard as ever for the student community of Saint Francis. Even though you might not be able to drop into the counseling center for some candy and a chat, Saint Francis counseling still has its (virtual) doors wide open for students. With that in mind, I reached out to a few members of the counseling department to learn about how they’re still here for you.

The Lancer: What is your role within the counseling department?

Mr. Hector Camacho: I am the Director of Guidance & College Counseling. I represent the department at our school administrative leadership meetings and help bring the lens of student mental health and well-being, as well as college preparedness to the decision-making process.

Ms. Chrissy Guerra: I work as a college and guidance counselor—most of us in our office do that. We work with sophomores through seniors, and that means we’re doing academic and emotional and social counseling. I also took a role this year as the lead college counselor, so I helped design and organize some of the college counseling curriculum.

Mr. Aaron Burney: I support about 200-plus freshmen. We [the freshman guidance counselors] will do anything that we can do to support freshmen, especially to help them along with their transition from middle school to high school—groups, getting their classes, all that stuff. Because we don’t talk about the college piece as much, we have a lot more time to focus on the social-emotional piece of it.

TL: What does your usual day in the counseling office look like? How has it changed?

HC: I usually start the day by checking in with counselors about what’s on the docket that day. Then I usually have some sort of meeting to attend on campus (usually 2-3 per day) with one of my teams, and in between all that I meet with students to assist with academic planning or other support. One of the greatest things about counseling is that no one day is the same — you never know what students will need! Interestingly, [work from home is] pretty much the same! I check in with counselors by email, then have a few Zoom meetings that I attend with my teams, and squeeze in individual meetings with students by Zoom. My eyes are pretty exhausted by the end of the day.

CG: In some ways, it’s not that different. In general, as counselors, we try to be available to students. For example, we tend to be in our offices when we’re on campus. We try not to leave too much so that we’re there if a student comes in for questions or needs anything. And so in the same way, we try to be available remotely during “school hours.” Checking in on students is the biggest thing that I am doing right now—students who might be struggling a little bit or having a hard time managing remote learning or who have other stuff going on right now. That’s a big piece of what our job looks like right now.

AB: Funny story—students weren’t allowed to be at school, but some of the faulty were for a little bit. I actually tried to stay at Saint Francis as long as I could, doing the exact same routine. Even though I didn’t have to get up that early, I went to school at the same time, I took lunch at the same time. When they told us we couldno longer go to campus, that was really hard for me, so I can only imagine how hard it was for students or for other people who needed theroutine of that consistency. It was pretty abrupt for us too, honestly: we had a couple meetings on campus with no other students around and we thought we were going to come back to campus and figure out what to do from there. People are giving feedback and trying to make things work to be supportive academically but also emotionally. I personally am pretty happy with how the school administration has been able to listen and give people freedom, but also hold people accountable. Counseling has a weekly meeting on Tuesday, and we would typically hold meetings once or twice a week. The normal day would be a list of students wanting to check-in, then waiting for someone else to come in or for a teacher to email me. I rarely have free time but I’ve been taking micro-breaks with my Nintendo Switch, so when I’m done with some work I whip it out for like five minutes.

TL: Any “hidden gems” students should know about or things you miss around the office?

HC: The students! I feel confident saying that what gives counselors the most energy and enthusiasm is seeing the faces of our wonderful students. And, yes, all of them are wonderful. Zoom cannot replace the sounds, sights, and energy of being around students all day. Also, we definitely miss the coloring books and toys in the lobby of the counseling office. They keep our students occupied and offer a great break from the bustle of the hallways.

CG: Like you said, we have the toys and relaxation things that were in the counseling office this year. That has been a really great place for students to go relax if they needed to, and we definitely had some students that came in a lot. As for secrets: if a student looks around in the counseling office enough, they can find some sort of candy. Ask around! You usually can find something. I just miss getting to see my co-workers, in addition to seeing students. It’s a lot harder to catch up with people when we’re remote, instead of just saying hi to Mr. Camacho across the hall from me.

AB: If you ever want to learn more about us, the counseling squad, just as people? Just sit at the counseling tables! You learn a lot about us and our personalities, our quirks and our bantering. I want that space to be there and I want students to be able to have ownership of that space. That’s also why I wanted to make sure that there were a lot of tools or toys on the tables! I actually brought those toys that were in my office when I was working as an elementary school counselor.

TL: How have you seen the coronavirus outbreak impacting the way seniors are making college decisions?

CG: There might be some change than what we would have seen otherwise, but it’s hard to know that for sure because we don’t know what would have happened. We’re still figuring out seniors’ final decisions right now, and a lot of colleges have extended deadlines; that’s allowing students to have a little bit more time to think about it. I wouldn’t be surprised if, not just at Saint Francis but in general, students end up staying a little closer to home.

HC: It’s definitely thrown a wrench into the already hard decision-making process for seniors. Some seniors are having to make some agonizing decisions whereas others have already known their plans since January or February. Making the final decision, particularly during the pandemic, can be an emotional process so we just try to meet seniors where they are in that moment. Some students are thinking they may want to stay closer to home. Others have concerns about the possibility of having to do remote classes the first semester of college. There are many more factors to consider and some seniors are still weighing their options.

TL: How has the coronavirus outbreak been impacting student mental health, and what can we do to better cope with these changes?

AB: There are definitely students who don’t have great Internet access. If we’re in remote learning right now, everyone has iPads, but if you don’t have a great internet connection, you can’t get on as much. We really want students to be able to say, “This is hard for me, and this is why”—to name it like this. Maybe the neighborhood you live in has really bad wiring, or some people can’t afford the internet you need to hold really good Zooms. Whether a C student didn’t have good internet or they just weren’t taking care of their stuff, if your grades are dependent on being online, we’re trying to make sure that it’s as equitable as possible.

HC: It has impacted students in different ways. To be clear: just about every student would prefer to be on campus, with their friends and teachers. Still, some students are doing just fine during shelter-in-place, reconnecting with people in their household unlike they’ve ever been able to in the past. Some students are struggling with the lack of face-to-face contact with their peers. For others, school may be the place they feel the most open and free. From a developmental perspective, social distancing is not ideal for teens since this is when they spend a great deal of time learning about and forming their own identities based on interaction with peers. We’ll need to look at how to support students when we get back to campus to help make up for that lost time.

AB: Mental health has been one of the most frustrating pieces of all this for me. Coming from being a therapist, I’d see students to basically hang out for an hour and do things that were therapy-related, but they could be anything really—coloring, painting, video games. I really miss that connection—just being around other people, you can learn a lot from people no matter how old they are. Students are saying that they’re not really seeing their friends as much; even though we have Zoom, because we’re using Zoom for school, it doesn’t feel right to reach out to people to call. What people have also underestimated is how important routine and consistency have been. When we’re at home and kind of staring at the wall our brain takes us down rabbit holes. When you’re young, you want to connect with people. It’s easy to kind of feel like a failure, especially if all you have to connect with is school, which isn’t the same right now. That’s expected, because we’re not in school!

TL: What’s something you wish more students they could ask for from you right now?

HC: They can ask for pretty much anything! I think many students feel that they don’t want to bother someone with a question or that we’re too busy, but it’s our job to help students feel supported and get the answers they need.

CG: I hope we are letting students know that we’re available, but I wish that they knew that we really mean that and that we want to. Sometimes, I think students are afraid that they’re taking up too much time or that we have something else that we need to get done. We would much rather be interacting with students right now, and we want to be available.

AB: The freshman department is holding office hours from 10 A.M. to 11 A.M. on Mondays. I’ve had one person jump into office hours! When we were in school, people were more willing to email me. Now, there’s less “hey, can I pop in and say hello, can I speak with you.” It’s really important for people to kind of set a goal to connect with one person like a day or something like that. Set up a schedule, or some kind of routine. It’s almost like micromanaging ourselves, but for many people that can be very soothing and very safe. And for the school piece: you’re going to have to be kind to yourself, because it’s not like it used to be. Take the B’s, take whatever you can to get through this. The most important thing is your overall health: can you go outside for a little bit? Out of the twenty things you have to do, sometimes you have to only prioritize three of them. Most teachers aren’t dinging everybody the way they used to. Trying to prioritize like that can be hard to do on your own, especially when you’re used to being at a particular level. Right now, I’m saying that it’s okay for you to be at a different level.

TL: If you could give one piece of advice or message to the entire class of 2020 as we head into APs, the end of the school year, and virtual graduation, what would you say? Is there anything you would really like the Saint Francis student community to know?

AB: Emotions are often overlooked. And I hope that Saint Francis gets to a point where we can talk openly about mental health, without it being a stigma and without being negative. I think once we’re able to do that, then I think our community will be closer and will be safer for everybody. Please come in and use our resources, be a part of the counseling squad, because we’re here.

HC: This is one moment in time. There are so many adventures that still lay ahead and now, more than ever, you’ll be more ready to seize on those opportunities. It’s okay to not be okay! Always remember that at Saint Francis (either in person or virtually) you always have a team rooting for you and ready to jump in whenever you need some support. Reach out and we’ll be there!

CG: As a department, we genuinely care about all the students and we want to be available and be a resource and support. And we miss them! Like everybody else, we’re all sad we’re not in person right now.

Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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