In photo above, Tamra Smith, director of counseling at St. Patrick-St. Vincent Catholic High School in Vallejo, speaks to seniors Christian Alvarez and Llove Remo.
Christian Alvarez and Llove Remo, seniors at St. Patrick-St. Vincent Catholic High School in Vallejo, both agree that adolescence can be a complicated time, especially for mental health, and that teens need their high school communities to keep doing more in response.
The latest studies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) urge parents, health care providers and counselors to address threats to mental health in young people, especially adolescents.
More than 37% of high schoolers in the U.S. reported experiencing poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a 2021 CDC study. Almost half (44 percent) of high schoolers reported feeling persistently sad or hopeless in 2020. Some of these feelings were also linked to experiences of racism, sexual violence and social stigma.
Christian and Llove note that teens may be hesitant or unable to discuss mental health challenges with parents, therapists and school staff. Stigma about mental illness and a lack of information or access to care can also prevent many teens from asking for help.
But sharing personal stories about mental health can offer encouragement and connection and help teens feel like they are not alone.
Christian and Llove note that they, as well as many of their peers, talk about feeling lost, embarrassed or frustrated by their mental health issues. Others also talk about going from being confident in early childhood to feeling alone or unseen in adolescence.
Christian credits his regular use of the counseling department at St. Patrick-St. Vincent (SPSV) for helping him get through his high school years. He experienced episodes of depression during his freshman year and came weekly to see Tamra Smith, director of counseling, for private sessions until he was better. Now he comes in at least twice a month for a counseling session with one of the three counselors on campus.
“After class online during the pandemic, when I came back to school in person in March 2021, I ended up being disrespectful and I wasn’t attentive about my classes. I didn’t see any point and didn’t care about school,” Christian shares. “I went through a very depressive state where I ended up skipping classes for a bit and I needed help. I stopped attending church also.
“I ended up calling the hotline number on the back of our ID cards, then I got in touch with our counseling department. I had meetings with Mrs. Smith every Friday to talk about how I was doing and how school was coming along. All these sessions put in perspective how much school really matters, and how much I should care about it after not caring for a while.”
Whether it’s coming in for advice or help with college applications, Christian now finds the counseling department “a quiet space to give myself a break that I know I need. Having the opportunity to talk about my issues with people who are mature, trained and non-judgmental, helps so much. I can’t emphasize how grateful I am.” During the past two years, he’s been involved in leadership camp, choir, theater and visual performing arts.
Christian, a graduate of St. Catherine of Siena School in Vallejo, says he values his faith but also has been raised to be accepting and respectful of all people – their ethnicities, cultures and faiths. “No matter what a person believes, I shouldn’t judge them on that,” he says. “What I like about the Catholic faith is that you know you are part of something bigger and you are not alone. There are many teens who have traumas in their lives and that can lead to gradually losing your faith.”
He prays about three times a week to “give myself a moment to think and reflect as part of a coping method, whether it’s formal prayer I’ve memorized or having a conversation with God, or someone who I cared about who has passed on. It’s a time to meditate and reflect.”
Llove, who graduated from Benicia Middle School, has been involved with the Black Student Union, the Latino Club, in leadership and in the Pen and People club for mental health (where students journal and talk about mental health issues) at St. Patrick-St. Vincent.
“I went from teachers not caring about us so much in middle school, to teachers who honestly care about us. My work before high school was so basic, and now I am being challenged intellectually,” Llove notes. “I didn’t do well my first two years here, and what helped me was going to counseling whenever I had a bad day. I’ve learned to open up to talking about my feelings, because I didn’t grow up doing that. I’ve gone from a 3.0 GPA to a 4.0 GPA because of how great my counselors are. It’s so great we have three counselors on campus.”
Llove notes that many teens would benefit from talking to adults about their problems, but parents or adult relatives are not always their preferred option, and they may be more comfortable talking with school counselors. Some teens worry that their parents will overreact to their struggles or would not understand what they are going through. Even teens who do not have a diagnosed mental condition such as anxiety or depression can still have occasional problems with emotions, peer and family relationships, anxiety about school, or substance use.
She adds that use of social media among teens “is negative for the most part, and reinforces stereotypes about others. You see people who have no empathy or sympathy for others. When we are going through depression or other mental health issues, it’s best to take breaks or abstain from social media, and not expose yourself to things that damage your mental health.”
Tamra, who has been on staff at St. Patrick-St. Vincent since 2006, was the athletic director and longtime women’s softball coach before she became a counselor. She also worked at Notre Dame School in Vacaville for five years. One of her sons is a SPSV alum and another son is a junior this year.
“I thoroughly enjoy high school age students,” she says. “They are so eager to learn, and the change you see in a student maturing from freshman to senior year is amazing – mentally, academically and spiritually.”
In the past few years, counselors have noticed that students’ “coping skills are quite low and their resilience – the word ‘grit’ comes to mind – is something they struggle with,” she says. “Receiving a fail on a test is upsetting – they and their mom or dad might be upset. But we’ve seen more now that students fall apart at things that in the long run of their life will not hold them back. To teach them that every experience in their life is part of the build and not the finale. Teaching them coping skills is key and they need to learn to advocate for themselves. That’s something we pride ourselves on here.
“Our mission is their overall education, but so important is helping them develop morally and spiritually to become quality people in life, and to learn how to deal with challenges and help others,” Tamra adds.
Part of the job of teachers and counselors is to educate, guide and support parents in the challenges they face with their teens, Tamra notes. “We urge parents to not be afraid to ask their teens the tough questions. Sometimes they may not like the answers, but it’s worth having the conversations. Parents need to set boundaries and sometimes those fall to the wayside. When parents give young people lots of freedom, that is something that teachers and coaches on campus struggle with. Students don’t always have the greatest experience with an adult telling them ‘no.’ That primarily starts in the home.
“We all need to work together collaboratively to build these young people up. We are proud that every student at SPSV graduates college or trade eligible. We have a high percentage of students going to college. But in reality, it’s all about what kind of persons they are going to be for the rest of their lives.”