Getting help may be difficult in a school the size of M-A; it’s not a lack of resources but the lack of available information about where to go and when. Students who are struggling with their mental health should know about the student center in B-20, a hub of studying and support.
Licensed therapist Michelle Cristerna works in B-20 alongside Luis Onofre and Brenda Maciel, two StarVista caseworkers. The room is warm and welcoming, usually full of students working and eating. “We get a huge number of peer referrals,” said Cristerna, addressing the collaboration.
The most important reasons to talk to a counselor regard safety: if a student is hurting themselves, if they are hurting others, or they are being hurt, it is vital to seek help. “If there’s ever a question of safety, we want to talk to that student,” said Cristerna. “That also includes drug or substance abuse, and extremely risky behavior. Risky behavior can look like reckless driving, or, say, walking around alone at three a.m.”
School counselors assess a student’s individual needs during the first visit and make a plan for the future. “It’s not like a doctor’s visit,” explains Onofre. “Many students drop in when they feel like they need the support.” Other students come in for monthly or weekly visits if only to check in. “Sometimes the first few times we meet, we don’t even talk about the underlying issue. It’s important to get comfortable first and to feel safe, so [the student] can open up.”
Meetings are confidential. Peer referrals are confidential as well unless the friend says otherwise. Cristerna stated that “often, friends are okay with that knowledge being shared. It’s a very healthy thing.” Most referrals come from peers.
The network of M-A based counselors, psychiatrists, and other mental health workers helps to get treatment to lower-income students that might otherwise not be able to afford to visit a professional out-of-school.
Cristerna stated the importance of knowing when to seek help. There is a line between a mental health condition and a manageable amount of stress, whether school-related or not. “If your day-to-day academic performance is affected hugely by stress, if you’re actively performing badly because of your stress, then it’s time to seek help… if you’re so stressed out by other factors in your life too that you can’t focus, you should come in.”
Onofre added that students using the words “depression” and “anxiety” lightly undermine the severity of other students’ mental health issues. “When we have people saying, ‘oh, I’m depressed, I’m literally so anxious today,’ that gets hurtful. One test doesn’t make you anxious.”
Sometimes B20 fills up and it can be hard to get in to talk with a counselor during the usual times — before and after school, and during brunch. Cristerna recommends starting with your guidance counselor if the situation is not as urgent. Then, you can make a plan to receive counseling fit to your needs. According to Onofre, most students “don’t realize that [they] can receive support here that’s equal to that of your private doctor”.
When a student is having severe mental health issues and requires the next level of support, Cristerna and the other counselors can refer the student to outside resources so they can continue to receive assistance during school breaks and summers. Most notably is CORA, a community-based organization for victims of abuse.
“We’re not perfect, but we’re way better than nothing,” said Cristerna. “Everyone is welcome. We’re here to talk.”