The Unspoken Crisis


Barranca Mesa Elementary School

There have been a number of recent articles talking about the mental health of our High School and Middle School Students but I would like to propose that these issues first arise in Elementary School.  This may be uncomfortable to consider but it is truth. If we are going to address the mental health of our youth, it must begin in Elementary School.

Five years ago, I was faced with a situation involving a possibly suicidal student.  Their friends were scared and unsure of what to do in such a stressful situation where a misstep could result in the death of a friend.  These students were mine and I felt responsible for helping all involved get the support and resources to navigate the situation. Despite also not really knowing what to do, I did my best.  The principal at the time, Brad Parker, helped me handle the situation and suggested that there was a need for additional support for our students population. He lead me to the “Natural Helper Program” which has been active throughout the state.  This program was typically a High School Program so bringing it to the Elementary level was new. While we were the first in the state to reinvent this program for an Elementary School, it is now becoming more common in New Mexico.

The first step to developing this program was gathering some data so that we could see where the need was for elementary students.  We needed to know what issues students were dealing with and where they were struggling. I remember sitting with a colleague and soon to be partner in this mission to support our youth, Audrey Juliani, and we cried.  We could not believe what we were seeing. Could it be possible that 5th and 6th grade students were really having these thoughts, this amount of stress, this level of desperation. We didn’t know what else to do but cry.

Since then, Audrey and I have been determined not to give a blind eye to student struggles and be open to discussing topics these students are facing openly.  For three years, we adapted the curriculum for the High School Natural Helper Program. After that we continued to adapt our program each year to best support the needs of our specific population.  We regularly help students who are depressed, overly stressed, having friend troubles, suffering from loss and at least once a year we help a student who feels like they don’t have a place in this world.  Together we help the students build strategies, confidence, and most importantly know that they do matter.

What is important for everyone to know and acknowledge is that our youth are under unprecedented stress and are trying to meet everyone else’s expectations.  Audrey and I have made it a priority to listen to students, initiate dialogue on uncomfortable topics so they know that these topics aren’t taboo, and ensure that students are aware that they are not alone in this journey.  When people pretend and don’t allow these conversations to happen, students feel there must be something wrong with them for feeling these things and that they have no one to turn to.

For those of you who believe that I’m overreacting or that this really isn’t an issue at the Elementary level, let me give you some numbers for 5th and 6th graders at the beginning of the 2018/19 School Year.

  • 20% of students don’t like school
  • 8.6% of students don’t feel successful
  • 23.5% are hungry and don’t have food
  • 17.2% feel they don’t have anyone they can talk to.
  • 14.7% of students don’t feel liked by their peers.

When asked what the top stressors are in their life, they respond:

  •  54.8% Achievement in school/grades
  •  45.2% Stress, not enough time
  •  36% Feel loss due to death, divorce
  •  29.6% Depression (overwhelming feelings of hopelessness)
  •  19% feel abused, emotionally, physically, sexually, or bullied
  •  3.5% have feelings of suicide or self destructive/harm behaviors.
  • Some 116 students completed this optional and anonymous survey. 

Each year Audrey and I become more determined to be a force for supporting our youth and empowering them as they navigate through adolescence.

When Audrey and I started to tried to open dialogue about these issues, we were met with resistance.  We were told that we were making problems where they don’t exist. We do not believe that sweeping these issues under the carpet is helping anyone and appreciate the people who have supported us in our efforts:  New Mexico Department of Health, Juvenile Justice Advisory Board and our principals, Brad Parker and Virginia Terrazas. As a community we must first, acknowledge that there is a problem and then second, do something about it.  

Over the last five years, Audrey and I have created a bond that can never be broken.  We have shared openly with students, cried with students, and helped them believe in a brighter future.  We have given them hope. We have made students believe that there are people who believe in them and will drop everything to help them through a difficult time.  We have made a commitment to all of our students to be there when they need us even after they have been promoted from Barranca. Students have called on us post Barranca and we have been there.      

Let us not shy away from these hard topics.  Let us not refuse to admit there is a problem.  Our youth are suffering. Together we can make a difference for Los Alamos youth.  Please support your teachers and programs that work tirelessly to make sure that our children have a brighter future.