Standing in the Gap

Standing in the gap is a biblical term that refers to someone standing in the gap of a wall that has been breached and needs to be filled to protect from enemies. For our learners, their usual wall of protection certainly has a gap now, and many of them will need us to stand in it for and with them. This time of COVID-19, schools closing their physical walls, and social distancing is scary for everyone. It creates uncertainty about our world that is unsettling and is filled with anxiety for many people, but especially for those with previous mental health concerns.  

I have seen many posts on social media and have heard from close friends and family that this last week was hard for them. The reality of our current situation, which once seemed novel, is starting to feel very real. People are beginning to know someone personally who is ill, which makes it all even more real and frightening. The level of fear and isolation can be really dangerous for people, especially for our learners who rely heavily on their support system at school. We did our first two suicide risk assessments last week based on comments learners made on an online platform or in a video conference. Finding ways to support our learners’ emotional well-being is always important, but it has taken on a whole new meaning now.  

We had the opportunity to have Hakeem Rahim for our opening day speaker for all staff a few years ago. He shared his story of realizing at seventeen that he has bipolar disorder while he was attending Harvard University after being named the first African-American male valedictorian at his high school. His message for us that day was about how important it is to remove the stigma of having a mental health issue and to be open to talking about it. He shared a message of hope to move beyond our lowest lows and find a way forward. In a speech he gave for the National Alliance for Mental Illness, he said, “If we can intentionally say I accept what I am going through. If we can say that because I’ve accepted what I am going through, there’s absolutely no shame, and there’s absolutely no more hiding. If we can understand that acceptance builds a space for possibility and if we understand that if we are diagnosed with a mental illness, there is hope, we have won, and we have been transformed…… You must believe that somebody out there believes in you even when you do not believe in yourself. ” 

I have been thinking about his message a lot this week as things started to feel more grim. It is so important to find connections to others and believe that there is somebody out there who believes in you. I have seen the amazing ways our educators are showing learners they believe in them and deepening their relationships over our last two weeks of distance learning. They are finding new and exciting ways to check-in and make sure our learners are okay. Teachers are hosting class meetings, online recess, dance parties, and spirit weeks as well as driving through neighborhoods to show signs and wave to our learners. Our elementary teachers are sharing stories of video lunches where suddenly the whole family was there having lunch with the teacher. They are sharing stories of the connections being made between learners and their own families as they are all at home and sometimes end up on the video chats as well. They are writing notes of support and encouragement and sharing messages of hope. Our goal when we went to distance learning was to continue to provide some of the consistency of school while trying new ways of learning and making sure our learners continued building strong relationships with staff. In many cases, this time has bonded our learners and teachers in new ways, which is encouraging.   

Our counselors, social workers, school psychologists, educational assistants, and secretaries are also connecting with either learners or staff every day. Our teachers need us to support them as much as our learners do. This transition has been a challenge for everyone, and we have teachers working harder than ever to be sure learners have what they need. This week, our lead school psychologist is running a mindfulness class for our teachers that have expressed they are struggling. Our building substitutes are still working to be sure teachers have support if they need to take time due to physical illness or just need time to regroup. It has become a shared experience for staff, learners, and families wherein we are all learning to appreciate one another a little more. In an opening circle for a class, one learner wrote, “I give a shout-out to all our teachers for teaching us the best they could and staying calm during an unexpected problem.” That learner just stood in the gap for a teacher who may have needed it.  

We also have our Hope Squads starting to learn how to do their outreach online to create space for learners to support other learners. Most people share their stories of how and why they are struggling if you happen to catch them in a moment in time when it seems right for them. We have to be sure we are intentionally creating many, many chances for connections between us all in order to be sure that when someone is ready to share their story, someone else is there to listen and support them with the right help.  

Our families are feeling it too and are doing the best they can under the circumstances. Many of them are worried about the financial impact of all of this or have been laid off because of it and are learning to be a distance learning teacher at the same time. It has been a challenge to make the transition in my own house with my husband and I both working from home and trying to keep our children engaged in learning. I am thankful to the number of teachers who have offered us support but have been okay when we needed to say no thanks and just take a break from things for a short while. They have stood in our gap over the last two weeks in a powerful way that I truly appreciate.  

This time is challenging for all of us, and the longer it goes on, the harder it may be to hold on to hope and positivity. It is time for all of us to stand in the gap for others when we can and ask for others to stand in our gap when we can’t. I am grateful someone was listening when two learners reached out with suicidal thoughts so we could get them the help they needed, but it was also a reminder of how much our outreach to check on one another matters right now. There are so many beautiful ways in which our communities have come together during this crisis. We have people volunteering to deliver meals, doing blood drives, donating medical supplies, sewing masks, creating engaging lessons both on and off-line to keep learners engaged, finding ways to support local businesses, and honoring the recommendations to stay home whenever possible. The physical distance between us can unify us in a new way, but we need to be open to talking about our challenges and relying on others to stand in our gap until we are ready to stand in our own again.   

Inspiring Hope

Inspiration and hope- two such beautiful words that many of our young people don’t encounter enough. The advancements that technology has brought to our world have been amazing, but just like with anything else there are always two sides. Our young people now live in a world that is superficial and disconnected from others too much of the time. They spend hours on devices that have actually changed the way the brain works, both in significant ways and in ways that have created new challenges. One of the biggest challenges is the feeling that is presented on social media that everyone’s lives, except mine, are perfect. Social media has also very sadly become an easy platform for criticism and bullying as it can be anonymous, and that somehow makes many people feel they can and should be mean to one another. Mental health challenges have significantly increased in recent years, and in 2017 suicide became the second leading cause of death for people between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four, some of which has been attributed to the use of social media. The lack of hope that our young people feel is a problem we all need to solve, but we also need to be far more proactive than we have been in our approach to a solution.

Two years ago, we had two learners from our school district commit suicide. The impact of those moments on their families, our staff, other learners, and our community was devastating. Our number of suicide risk assessments has also doubled in the last four years, which is scary. We spend a lot of time reflecting on what we can do to help promote more hope and mental wellness for our learners’ verses always waiting to intervene when someone is at a crisis point. Last year, we shifted our work in Social Emotional Learning to be focussed around building resiliency skills from young ages including trying to get staff and students to see working through issues of anxiety and depression as a demonstration of resilience instead of a deficit. We all experience anxious and depressed moments. Some people’s brains are wired to feel those much more intensely and more frequently than others, so they need additional support to work through them some of which may require outside intervention. We need to make it okay for our learners to admit when they are struggling (both with the small things and the ones that can be debilitating), knowing we’re here to support them and that we all believe they can make it through when they get stuck. We added another layer of support a few years ago with licensed therapists from outside agencies in every school so our learners have access to weekly therapy at school through their insurance. These are all things adults are doing for learners to reduce the stigma of needing support for mental wellness and make care accessible. We were still looking to find a way for young people to be involved in promoting mental wellness and finding new ways to support each other. That is when we found Hope Squad.

Hope Squad is a peer support program where learners are nominated by their peers and then receive special training in understanding the signs of suicide and depression with tools to refer their peers to adults for help. In almost all cases of completed suicide, the student told someone first that they had a plan. Unfortunately, the person they likely told was another child who did not know what to do with that information. When we met some Hope Squad members from another school district, we were so impressed by how empowered they felt to help others. They were from all different social groups, a big part of the nomination and selection process, and they were able to share how they look out for other Hope Squad members and all learners in the school. They watch for people sitting alone and make sure they reach out and include them. The learners all still have their primary social groups, but Hope Squad became a bridge to be sure everyone has someone, and people are simply kinder to one another. When we heard those learners share how inspired they felt from their participation in Hope Squad, we moved from a small pilot to implementation at all six of our secondary schools at the start of this school year.  

Our Hope Squads meet during advisory either daily or several times a week. They receive training in the signs of suicide and depression and Question, Persuade, Refer. The training includes some clear expectations that the learners are not counselors and are not providing any kind of counseling. Instead, they are looking for signs that others are at-risk, strategies for reaching out and providing friendship to everyone, ways to get others to seek help from adults, and strategies for self-care as they are the students that are chosen to share in someone else’s struggle. The advisor also gets training in not only how to implement the lessons but also in their own self-care and how to make referrals to licensed mental health professionals as needed. We had a wide variety of staff choose to become advisors including one of our cafeteria leaders and a school secretary as these are often the people kids are reaching out to along with their teachers and counselors.  

I had the privilege to attend the roll-out of the Hope Squads at one of our intermediate schools. It was incredible. The learners, proudly wearing their Hope Squad t-shirts, went to each advisory in their grade level and explained what the Hope Squad is. One student told the rest of his peers that he was not sure why they nominated him, but now that they did, he was not going to let them down. He is a student for whom school is not always easy. His nomination meant a lot to him and empowered him in a new way to connect at school. The Hope Squad members told their peers how we all have bad days, we all need someone to talk to, and we are all going through things that we can talk about. They said things like:

  • “We get training to be the eyes and ears of the school for kids who are having a hard time. You can tell us if you know someone who is.”   
  • “If you are feeling down, we can report it and help you with a problem.”
  • “We can keep each other safe.”
  • “If you have a problem, you can come to us because sometimes it is hard to talk to teachers and adults. We will make time to help you.”

One learner asked a Hope Squad member if they could only talk to him on days he was wearing his Hope Squad shirt. He enthusiastically replied, “No, you can talk to me anytime. I just can’t wear the same shirt every day. You can also talk to me online if that’s easier for you.” Watching our learners try to turn social media into a way to connect with one another positively at eleven and twelve years old gives me hope.  

Our other schools have reported how honored learners and their parents have been to be nominated and chosen by the advisors for Hope Squad. They are all taking it seriously and actively planning Hope Week activities and kindness events for everyone. The advisors shared how empowered the students feel to be leaders within the school, which is really awesome as some of the learners who were chosen are not a part of clubs, sports, and activities where those leadership opportunities usually surface. 

There are great stories from all over our world about young people who are solving the major problems facing us. While I always love reading those stories, we also have to remember that it does not always have to be a world-wide solution to be a huge deal. We had a learner refer someone who was cutting for help to their advisor within the first couple of weeks of starting our Hope Squads. The learner was brave enough to reach out for help, another learner listened, and everyone knew what to do. Our learners are ready to build hope and inspiration even if it takes doing it one peer at a time, which is a pretty major problem to help solve and one we can all easily work on every day.