Healdsburg High Students and Teachers Grapple with Mental Health Amid the Pandemic

Elise Thompson

MAR. 11, 2021

When looking beneath the surface of failing grades and lack of engagement, it’s clear a prominent problem lies with mental health.

Transitioning education to an online format has created a great divide, allowing some students to thrive immensely, while others only continue to fall further behind. But when looking at the impacts of distance learning on both students and teachers alike, the resulting problems tend to only be seen through an academic point of view. However, when looking beneath the surface of failing grades and lack of engagement, it’s clear a prominent problem lies with mental health.

The cause and effect of these mental health issues were brought to light in interviews with students and staff at Healdsburg High School (HHS), who provided insight on common problems being faced around the globe.

While mental health problems have been on the rise, the disconnect between teachers and students has also grown greatly.

“We don't really know the extent of the mental health issues that we're seeing. By student questionnaires and just individual email contact we have gathered that students are feeling overwhelmed, anxious, stressed, even depressed. But again, it's hard to know the extent of that,” explained HHS history teacher Yasha Mokaram.

Google forms, class discussions and one-on-one Zoom opportunities are all different methods teachers are utilizing in an attempt to bridge the connection gap, but there is only so much you can do through the screen of a computer.

“As a freshman, I don't know any of the teachers personally and therefore I probably wouldn’t go to a teacher if I was experiencing problems with my mental health” said Hadley Ruter, a freshman at HHS. Ruter voiced the perspective of many students, especially freshmen and sophomores, who are still new to the high school environment and barely know their peers, let alone school faculty.

Disconnect with students goes beyond just the student-teacher relationship and extends further to counseling administration.

“We are highly dependent on the teachers to give referrals of students who seem to be struggling, or who they have been unable to contact. And then if not the teachers, we look at the grades and see what sort of other support services we can offer them,” said Ever Flores, a member of the HHS counseling department.

Flores explained how, in a normal school year, the counseling department refers about six to 10 students each year to County Health Services and Child Protective Services (CPS) to ensure that students are getting their mental health needs met. However, this year they have yet to file one CPS report.

Overall, the idea of mental health encompasses a variety of different emotions and expressions, and one of the main ones that has come to surface through distance learning is increased anxiety, often as a direct result of Zoom.

“Anxiety can lead to other feelings and emotions, like depression and helplessness, that is having a huge impact on myself and on my students,” said Sharon Pollack, an English teacher at HHS.

Zoom-induced anxiety goes both ways, for teachers as well as students. Pollack voiced her great concern over not being able to build connections with her students. The divide between students and teachers has left her unsure of whether or not she is meeting students’ learning needs in a virtual context. She also is unable to keep track of students’ wellbeing as she would in a regular classroom setting, which can be very worrisome from a personal point of view — there’s no way to tell what goes on behind a student’s black Zoom square.

Should Zoom cameras be required to be on?

This then brings up the controversial topic of “cameras on vs off.”

“There's the side that teachers, faculty and staff get to glimpse what's going on at home. And it hasn't happened in Healdsburg yet, but in terms of reportable stuff, school districts have seen things happening in the background of Zooms that need to be reported. I think in terms of safety, enforcing cameras on is good,” said Flores in regard to one reason he sees cameras being on as a positive.

Dennis Ojeda-Jones, an HHS English teacher, voiced a similar opinion based on the idea that by turning cameras on, it is the closest we will ever get to an interactive and engaging classroom experience.

“I also understand being at that age of development, 14 to 18, there's so many things that really can make it anxiety-inducing. You don't get that instant feedback to know if you are being judged if you're not being judged. So, I fully understand if students don't want to turn on their cameras, but I still try to get them to do it, be comfortable and understand that we're creating a culture in this class that they're not going to be judged,” he said.

Teachers are aiming to create an engaging learning environment, but at the same time allow students to be comfortable enough to voice their reasons as to why they can’t participate.

Students, like teachers, also see both sides of Zoom-induced anxiety.

“I think having my camera on keeps me on task. Just knowing that the teacher can see what I'm doing keeps me from getting distracted,” said Hadley.

“I know that there have definitely been days, especially last semester, that I really didn't want to have my camera on,” voiced sophomore Emily Pile in regard to her Zoom experience. For her however, it was not necessarily as a result of anxiety. She sees it more of a well-needed break.

Staring at yourself on a screen day after day takes a mental toll beyond just judgement from others. With Zoom, students not only worried about judgement by peers, but also are subjecting themselves to never-ending self-judgement.

Amid all these negative issues associated with mental health over this past year, some students have managed to use this experience for personal growth.

“Mentally, it's been challenging. I've gone through like a lot of ups and downs. But I think at the end of the day, we've overcome so much, and continue to learn more about ourselves each day,” said senior Izabel Soto.

If anything positive has come out of this mental health crisis, Pile believes it is an increase in awareness. “I've been able to focus a lot more on myself and learn more about myself in the process. Like me, I think a lot of people have learned what they need to do to keep their mental health stable,” she said.

This situation has forced individuals to learn more about what they need to do to maintain a healthy mental state. It has allowed for increased awareness of mental struggles others may be facing, whether that be students, peers or family members. An example of this is the Bring Change to Mind club at HHS. This club is part of a much larger nonprofit organization dedicated to ending the stigma surrounding mental illness. Its ultimate goal is to raise awareness for these issues, spark conversation, as well as invoke empathy.

“We know that challenges in life are what builds character, strength, grit and persistence,” said Ojeda-Jones. He voiced the common perspective of hopeful people across the world that hopefully these challenges will only result in strength in the future.