Mental health at school. Very much in the news yet in many cases, a taboo topic. An earnest sit-down with school social worker, Britt Rosenquist. She speaks about the ups and downs as well as her voracious optimism for a generation that has been inundated with their share of challenges
by Melanie Taussig
Lead a group for anxiety. De-escalate a crisis of a ninth grader. Monitor truant students. Address bullying behaviors. For Britt Rosenquist, it’s all in a day’s work. As a social worker at the Denver Public Schools, Ms. Rosenquist is well acquainted with addressing mental health issues. It is, after all, part of her job. By no means is it an easy job but you might say that being a social worker is in Ms. Rosenquist’s blood. She grew up in Chicago watching her mother practice as a social worker in the local school district and knew this was also her calling. After completing her Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work at Midwestern State University, Ms. Rosenquist went on to earn a Masters Degree (MSW) from the Jane Addams School of Social Work at the University of Illinois in Chicago.
Mental health in education has recently been the subject of much attention, largely covered in the media. And, people are taking notice. Students are starting to speak up and advocate for themselves and for their futures. In local communities, parents are voicing concerns and there have been recent public service campaigns and rallies addressing mental health. When approached about sharing her experience as a school social worker, Ms. Rosenquist was eager to do so because she wants people to gain perspective about mental health within the education system.
Since she started working in the profession in 2014, Ms. Rosenquist has experienced challenging moments, extremely rewarding moments, and she has witnessed a great deal of change. Despite the ongoing shifts that come with working in education, Ms. Rosenquist points out a part in her job that has remained a constant: to support students. It is incumbent for school social workers to be sensitive and advocate for their students. “I help students access their education as well as develop healthy coping skills,” she says sitting at her desk on an August morning, another school year having just begun.
If there is such a thing as a typical day, for Ms. Rosenquist that day generally starts around 7:30am when she arrives at school. She recognizes that it is the good fortune that her students have a social worker on site, as many schools in the U.S. do not have a full-time mental health care professional on staff. Due to the shortage of school-based mental health professionals, it is not out of the ordinary that a school counselor, whose main job is to assist with class schedules, is on double duty and filling the role of a mental health counselor.
Many people may not understand the function of school social workers and how these professionals are imperative to ensuring a safe and supportive space for the school community. One of the reasons Ms. Rosenquist was enthusiastic to be profiled for this story is that she believes it is important for people to appreciate the critical role of a school social worker. “Ultimately we [mental health professionals] want students and families to know we care about their well-being and safety,” says Ms. Rosenquist. “Our end goal is to make sure that students have the coping skills and tools to access their education and to navigate life’s challenges in a healthy manner.”
The importance of listening and communication
At a time when many are moving away from working in education, in large part due to low pay, Ms. Rosenquist says there is nowhere she would rather be. She finds great gratitude in being privy to a student’s journey and their transformation for the better. She has worked with students who have a multitude of issues, including many children from the foster care system. Because foster children tend to move around frequently and may lack a stable living environment, behavior at school as well as academic performance can be impacted. Ms. Rosenquist is aware that her office has often served as a safe haven for students who are dealing with more than any child should ever have to. She recognizes that sometimes students are sharing emotions that they may not have spoken to anyone about in the past. “Students are voicing their thoughts and feelings to be heard, listened to, valued, and possibly receive further support. Perhaps they do not feel heard or listened to at home, perhaps they are seeking help or advice from another trusted adult in their life, or perhaps they just need validation in that moment,” says Ms. Rosenquist. She holds “open office hours” each day, providing a safe space for students to express feelings free of judgment or consequences. “We need to take their thoughts and words seriously and let students know we are doing more than just listening, we hear them,” she says.
Although she has been in the field for a relatively short amount of time (5 years), Ms. Rosenquist has seen a lot in the course of her career: depression, anxiety, ongoing trauma, bullying, suicidal thoughts, and self-harming behaviors—just to name a few. She views her role as one where the basis is both listening and engaging in effective communication. Ms. Rosenquist and her colleagues have worked assiduously to educate teachers and administrators how to address concerns of a potential mental health issue.
Because the majority of time students spend at school is in the classroom, Ms. Rosenquist cannot overstate how critical it is for teachers to be trained to recognize concerning behaviors, which could be indicative of a mental health problem. For this reason, she is in regular communication with teachers and administrators to provide support and guidance. The social work team has led teacher trainings on suicide, depression, and trauma informed-care. Teachers [and other staff] are not immune to the stressful environment that students are experiencing, which can be another element that social workers are managing. “They’re humans too,” Ms. Rosenquist says of teachers. It is not out of the ordinary that the school social worker might be working with teachers, providing education and guidance about the [mental health] issues while also lending an empathic ear and consoling students.
For those who may not recognize the magnitude of mental health or altogether miss signs that an individual might be struggling, downplaying symptoms is common. Ms. Rosenquist recalls several encounters with other adults where the conversation has gone to a place of, “they’re just being moody or they’re just being a teenager.” She does not believe that dismissive attitudes are intentional. Ms. Rosenquist is aware that it can sometimes be easier to skirt around an issue rather than confront it directly. While the last thing Ms. Rosenquist wants is to alarm families, she wants to take a realistic approach and ensure that parents, teachers, and other trusted adults are equipped with a basic knowledge and understanding about what to do in the event of a mental health concern or a crisis. The school district has made it a priority to hold mandatory staff trainings about topics such as suicide and self-harm. In addition, the district offers parent trainings to raise awareness about mental health. On any given day, Ms. Rosenquist can be found normalizing just how common these issues have become and the importance of transparent communication.
Shame, stigma, and school
Shame and stigma have historically hindered people from talking openly about mental health. In her work, Ms. Rosenquist discusses the importance of combating that mindset. “The sooner we know [a child has a mental health issue], the sooner we can put supports and interventions in place.” It is not unusual for parents and guardians to be surprised when they learn how helpful the school can be when it comes to supporting students. Ms. Rosenquist explains that in most academic settings, it is possible to have conversations about making accommodations for a student who is struggling. She points out that each situation is unique but that it is always worth asking the school how they can provide assistance. Examples of accommodations may include adjusting assignment deadlines, changing exam dates, and arranging for “check-ins” with the school social worker.
“Airing out all the dirty laundry,” can be a deterrent for families to inform the school about their child’s mental health issue explains Ms. Rosenquist. She seeks to inform others that communicating with the school regarding matters related to mental health is about support, not judgment. Schools are implementing supplemental supports as a way to help students thrive. “A family doesn’t have to share the whole story, we provide support in sharing as much or as little as [the family] is comfortable with,” says Ms. Rosenquist. When a mental health concern is kept in secret, the real consequence insists Ms. Rosenquist, falls onto the student as he or she misses out on assistance of potential supports that would otherwise be available. Ms. Rosenquist is encouraging of families approaching school administration to ask and learn about what supports could be made available.
There are instances in which students and families may not feel trusting of the social worker. Ms. Rosenquist is aware that there have been occurrences in which mental health counselors at schools are portrayed negatively and that seeking help can be regarded as an impasse. Ms. Rosenquist is dismayed by this circumstance and wants to convey that school social workers are in place to help students and provide guidance. If problems are kept secret and are outside of the purview of the school, it becomes more challenging to provide the necessary help and consequently, the student loses out.
Modern day concerns at school & the response
Nowadays there is a great deal of vigilance when it comes to addressing mental health in the school environment. School shootings have sadly become a familiar occurrence in this country and as a result, “active shooter drills” are commonplace. While this is a reality that is unsettling for most adults, in many cases it has become a way of life for students today, to the point that some students are impervious. Ms. Rosenquist explains that she has seen students who are desensitized altogether because they do not know anything different than living in a world where mass shootings are an everyday possibility. While some students may appear unaffected by the possibility of violence at school, others can present as extremely anxious. When a student expresses a concern about safety, Ms. Rosenquist says it is important to listen, to understand that concern, and to embolden the student to be part of the conversation toward a solution. When students feel as though they have a voice and the ability to effect change within their immediate environment, it can be empowering.
Following the Columbine school shooting in 1999, the State of Colorado adopted a program called Safe2Tell. Safe2Tell is a mobile device app designed for students [through it is available for use by anyone] to contact law enforcement in order to report an anonymous concern. Once the Safe2Tell line receives a tip, law enforcement will investigate. Students might use Safe2Tell to make a report about something such as feeling worried about a friend, concerns of drug use, or an individual voicing suicidal thoughts. Ms. Rosenquist considers use of Safe2Tell by students to be positive. The app not only allows students to report their concerns, but to also be involved in the conversation about school safety. “It is so important that if there is even an inkling of concern, that it is reported to the authorities, whether this be the local police or programs such as Safe2Tell,” explains Ms. Rosenquist.
As Safe2Tell does not exist in every state, Ms. Rosenquist urges any concerns, even minor ones to be reported to a mental health professional, or law enforcement. “If Safe2Tell doesn’t exist in your state, tell a trusted adult,” urges Ms. Rosenquist. “The more we are networking and encouraging reporting of concerns [using programs such as Safe2Tell and law enforcement], the more we can ensure safety.” There have been instances in which students have felt conflicted reporting a concern about a peer. In response Ms. Rosenquist always presents the question, “would you rather have an upset friend temporarily or a friend who is harming themselves or worse?” This ask often is a breakthrough and helps students to appreciate the significance of reporting a concern.
Arguably no aspect of life has changed as quickly as technology has in recent years. Technology is ubiquitous and overwhelmingly, the young people of today know no different than how to function in the absence of a smartphone. Most individuals born post-2000 have never known life without an iPhone or a tablet. The pervasive use of technology for this generation has made its way to the classroom. On one hand, technology is an advantageous tool. School districts routinely invest in tech and in many instances are partnering with companies to provide innovative educational opportunities for students. Conversely, there is often a distraction associated with technology, which can show up in the classroom.
“The pressure to be perfect” is a very real thing, explains Ms. Rosenquist who has watched this very notion play out amongst her students. The rise of social media gives way to increased disruptions that interfere with academics. Ms. Rosenquist has witnessed students who are feeling stressed because of constant text messages and pictures showing up on their phones during classes. Seeing a picture or message in the moment can sometimes be overwhelming and difficult for a young person to cope with. “It’s a huge concern these kids are faced with,” says Ms. Rosenquist. When a student is affected by what they have just glanced at on the phone, it becomes a gargantuan distraction, taking the focus away from schoolwork. Ms. Rosenquist encourages her students who are feeling the stress brought on by social media to express their feelings rather than harbor emotion. She has witnessed how a student talking through a difficult situation can assuage anxiety.
Helping students prosper at school and beyond
Ms. Rosenquist believes that a key part of her role is to ensure that students are engaged. Part of the engagement process is learning the value of accountability. Denver Schools has a unique program in place when it comes to discipline of students: the district is employing a restorative justice model. In addition to its use in educational settings, restorative justice is a practice that is being explored as an option for crime victims and offenders within the legal system. The central tenet behind restorative justice focuses on repairing harm rather than on punitive consequences. “By practicing these peaceful interventions, students are taught empathy, accountability, and learn how to repair the harm in a peaceful way,” says Ms. Rosenquist. Gaining this kind of perspective can be an invaluable asset to an individual later in life as qualities such as compassion and empathy can help build a person’s character and resiliency. “Accountability and empathy in restorative practices help students develop the life-long skills to understanding how others feel, apologizing for one’s actions, and repairing the harm in a positive and mature manner,” says Ms. Rosenquist. “Many students need guidance in developing these qualities, which will transfer to their work or academic future so that they have the skill-set to navigate disagreements or confrontation positively.”
Over a long conversation in her office, Ms. Rosenquist laughed and was joyful, she also expressed sadness at times [when thinking about some of the dire situations she has been privy to]. However, mostly she glimmered with hope, which by far was the most overarching emotion she displayed throughout the interview. “I am hopeful that with continued discussion and de-stigmatization of mental health, we can connect more students with services and resources to be on the upward trajectory, providing students with treatment,” she says. “Teenagers are discussing their mental health more than ever before and the trusted adults who will listen also need to be the connectors for teens getting further services and supports.”
The expansion of mental health services within the walls of schools is something Ms. Rosenquist is impassioned about. “So many students could benefit from consistent therapy services and due to financial situations, outside responsibilities, or lack of family support, it is difficult to receive,” she says. In Ms. Rosenquist’s opinion, therapy dogs can be a tremendous asset; helping students to feel calmer and more relaxed. Having additional mental health services on campus and fostering a culture that encourages students to talk openly about their feelings are things Ms. Rosenquist would like to see increasingly happen. By implementing small changes and supplemental supports, she believes students will ultimately feel a greater sense of equanimity at school.
By the time Ms. Rosenquist wraps up her day, a little after 3pm on most days, she is undoubtedly exhausted but also humbled and grateful for the opportunity to serve as a social worker. She feels great fulfillment from the relationships she has built with students and families. For Ms. Rosenquist, bearing witness to the success of her students is without question, part of her paycheck. “It is great to see the positive changes that come from working with students year after year,” she says, “and seeing what they make of their futures.”
If you know of student who could be struggling with mental health issues, for a list of resources, click here.
The following are additional resources specific to school and education settings:
A Day in the Life of a School Social Worker:
7:30am Arrival to school
8:00am Mental health IEP (Individualized Educational Plan) minutes with a student
8:45am Return missed phone calls
9:30am Lead a group for anxiety
10:15am Meet with a student referral regarding a mental health concern
11:00am Lunch duty
11:50am Pull an attendance report and call truant students’ families
1:00pm Meet with a student in crisis
2:00pm Check emails and respond to a teacher’s concern
2:40pm Plan curriculum for a group tomorrow
3:15pm Leave for the day
Britt Rosenquist, Social Worker at Denver Public Schools.
Photo courtesy of Ms. Rosenquist