By Jennifer Liyanage
Researchers at the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital found that 46 percent of surveyed parents of teens said that their child showed signs of a new or worsening mental health condition since the pandemic began last year. This has certainly been a year that has led to many new discoveries both pleasant and challenging. As such, there has never been a better time to introduce the Granada Hills Charter (GHC) social workers: Heliana Vargas and Vicky Wen.
According to The Social Work Dictionary, “School social workers are often called on to help students, families, and teachers address problems such as truancy, social withdrawal, overaggressive behaviors, rebelliousness, and the effects of special physical, emotional, or economic problems.”
However, that is only a simple and general definition of what school social workers do on a daily basis. Being part of a school community, they are almost like underdog superheroes, assisting in situations that can take a toll on their own mental well-being in order to assist students, families, and teachers.
Before the pandemic, the social worker team met with students in the health office. Since the pandemic, both Vargas and Wen have been aiding students online through Google Meet and Zoom during distance learning as well as through emails to the GHC student population.
What follows is an interview with our social workers.
What influenced you to become a social worker?
Wen: “I remember making a decision in middle school that I wanted my career to be in the mental health field. My goal was to help people. As I progressed through college, graduate school, and at my first job, I thought I purely wanted to be a mental health therapist working with kids, but I discovered that being a school social worker would be so much more fulfilling. School is a melting pot of change. Children spend so much of their lives in school that it becomes a second home whether that is welcomed or not. As a school social worker, I am able to connect a student and/or family with so many resources: emotional support, medical help, food, technology, etc. I also continue to fulfill my goal of helping people.”
Vargas: “I feel that I always knew I wanted to be a school social worker, but didn’t know the title for it. Since I was about seven years old my parents would take me to El Salvador during the Winter Break and one of our goals for going was to give to families in need and help brighten the holiday season. It always brought me the feeling of fulfillment. As I got older, we continued the tradition, but it also became a part of who I was. I was always looking for opportunities to help others. Along my journey I branched out to explore the role of a mental health therapist in the community, although it provided learning opportunities, I kept going back to wanting to be in a school setting.”
What’s it like working with high school students? What’s your role?
Wen: “I think my role is the equivalent to all the other staff and faculty members at Granada. We are a community, a village, that raises the kid together. If I did not have the teachers to be our eyes and ears in the classroom, I would miss opportunities to support students since I do not know when the dysregulation of a student’s routine occurs. If I did not have the lunch ladies serving food, I would have students who will not address their emotional needs since their focus will be on fulfilling their physiological needs. If I did not have the deans, I would not be able to address the reason for a students behavior since I would have to focus on discipline.”
How do you handle the emotional load of being a social worker? Is there anything you do to help ease the pain of hearing situations in students’ lives?
Wen: “It honestly takes a lot of self-care and a strong support system. I know that our students have challenges and hardships that are heartbreaking to see, and empathy fatigue is a very real and valid struggle. I think that is the hardest part of being in the field of helping others: never becoming numb to the emotions and being present constantly. There is a constant reminder either from ourselves, friends, or family that we too are doing the best we can with the best intentions and that our students are stronger than they look.”
Vargas: “A lot of self-care and a support system, for sure. Sometimes you need a little exercise to release some of that or maybe a funny movie to get a good laugh. When you hear heartbreaking stories, it’s important to be tuned to your own emotions as well as others’ emotions and to genuinely listen. Sometimes we may be doing everything possible to help, but it may not feel like we are, so it’s important to see the small steps being taken and not just the overall picture. Any little change is a success.”
How do you handle students who are hesitant or resistant to talking to someone about their lives?
Vargas: “Students may have a perception about our role, or may not really understand our role which can create hesitation. I aim to explain what our role is, but also that they have the right to self-determine. I don’t push for them to tell me about their lives, I respect the fact that it is personal and that they need to be ready and able to put themselves in a vulnerable position. I reassure them that I respect their decision and understand, but most importantly that I’m available for them now and/or in the future.”
How are some ways you make students feel more comfortable talking to you?
Wen: “This is going to sound so cheesy, but I try to be chill. I genuinely want to know what is going on with students, and I am not afraid to show my curiosity or confusion. I have asked girls about how they do their makeup or what does that slang word mean. I want to be as honest as I can with students so that they feel comfortable being vulnerable with me.”
Vargas: “At least right now, if possible I like to check-in with students through a Google Meet, so that they are able to see me, and I like to present myself with a calm and approachable presence. I genuinely care and want to know what’s going on and how I can offer my support. I’m also not afraid to show curiosity or confusion or that I may not have an answer. Like Ms. Wen, I have also asked about slang words, especially the acronyms. I also like to express my interest in learning about the students and being honest with them, so that in return they do feel comfortable and I can be an adult, a staff member at school that they can go to.”
Are there a lot of students that are afraid of talking to you because they are unsure what will happen in their situation?
Vargas: “Most definitely. One of the biggest concerns or questions we receive is: ‘Will you tell my parents?’ or ‘Please don’t tell my parents.’ This is when there’s conversation about confidentiality, what is spoken is confidential with the exception of: suspected or actual child abuse or abuse of the elderly and the threat of an individual to harm themselves or others. This simple explanation brings peace of mind and reassurance.”
What are activities or actions you do with students if they come to you?
Wen: “My favorite questions are ‘What do you think?’ and ‘What can I help you with?’ I want to make sure that students are a part of the conversation and not just in another situation where an adult is talking at them or talking for them. I want to encourage students to think so that they can make they own meaning and actively have an idea to take away from our conversation. When the opportunity arrives, I also enjoy playing games, especially ones where we can be a little devious with each other, like Exploding Kittens or stacking +5 cards for Uno Flip.”