This article is part of a series about mental health in Washtenaw County. It is made possible with funding from Washtenaw County's Public Safety and Mental Health Preservation Millage.
"Students don't have a lot of say a lot of times," says Lauren Fardig-Diop, the culture and climate coach at Ypsilanti high school Achieving College and Career Education (ACCE).
"They get told what to do and where to be and how to be and how to hold their bodies. And so I look for spaces, and I try to create spaces within our building, where students do have a little bit of power and control over their bodies and over what is going to happen."
ACCE is one of many schools in Washtenaw County poised to make use of $2.3 million granted to the Washtenaw Intermediate School District (WISD) over three years by Washtenaw County's Public Safety and Mental Health Preservation Millage Advisory Committee last January. The funds are intended to support mental health programming for students.
Lauren Fardig-Diop, Achieving College and Career Education culture and climate coach.
Fardig-Diop wants to ensure that ACCE students retain a primary role in deciding how the millage funding is spent at their school.
"We often will do a lot of things for students and we don't include them and their voices in the process of what we need — or we say, 'This is what young people need,' or 'This is what the solution is,' but we don't ask them what they want or what they need or what resources they need," she says. "... I believe in centering the people who are most impacted by something."
This early in the school year, Fardig-Diop says it's hard to predict how students will choose to spend the funds, but adds, "Anything that's student-driven and student-centered and that they're really excited about makes me super excited as well."
Grief, zen, and de-escalation
According to Sarah Hierman, WISD grants and special projects coordinator, the WISD team took a moment to step back and assess their situation when the millage funding came through. They also had funding coming in from the state, she says, and wondered, "How do we braid these pieces together in a meaningful way so that we can really impact our young people in schools?"
The answer has been multi-faceted.
"I think that grief and loss [are] something that we really need to focus on," says DarNesha Green, WISD mental health clinical supervisor. "However, if you speak to individuals in the schools, especially the social workers and the counselors, they don't feel equipped to be able to handle those types of situations."
WISD Grants Manager Sarah Hierman.
"We have a lot of young people who are dealing with some very serious grief and loss," she says. "A lot of young people have lost not just family members but caretakers, family, siblings — very, very close family members."
Both Fardig-Diop and Green say that kids manifest their grief in all sorts of ways at school.
"We see it manifest in fights and just rage, and not having a place to put that anger and grief around losing somebody," Fardig-Diop says. "We see it in withdrawal from activities and depression. We see it manifesting in loss of interest in the different activities that they used to be interested in, pre-grief. We see it in the ways that friendships change. The people that maybe they were super close to before are maybe not as close to them, or they're pushing folks away."
Last year, ACCE students used millage funding to create what they called a Zen Room, or "de-escalation space," according to Fardig-Diop.
"The goal really is to give students a place to be when … they're having a rough day or they need a break from class," she says, adding that the Zen Room helps teach students de-escalation skills and what they need to calm themselves down.
DarNesha Green, WISD mental health clinical supervisor.
The Zen Room, which is located outside of Fardig-Diop's office, is "a self-directed space" for students, but "they're never by themselves," Fardig-Diop says.
Fardig-Diop says she's also noticed the weight of secondary trauma taking its toll, particularly among less experienced teachers at ACCE. She says it can be difficult for teachers to process students' trauma and other mental health challenges.
"I just think the weight of some of this is definitely something that wears on teachers as well," she says.
Fardig-Diop adds that one idea under discussion is to use millage funding to create an "adult mental health space."
Staff do have access to the teachers' lounge, she says, but that's generally a space "where people are eating and heating up things," so "if adults are having a tough day or need a place to de-escalate, we don't have a space for that yet."
Both Fardig-Diop and the WISD team agree on the importance of establishing healthy baseline mental health for kids by implementing mental health initiatives for their parents and teachers as a kind of preventative measure.
According to Shannon Novara, WISD program manager, "When we're looking at ways [to prevent] the need for mental health services later on, one of the ways that we can do that is by preventing adverse childhood experiences early in life, and to do that we have to support parents. We have to help parents kind of work on what they need to work on for themselves so that they can be better parents for their children."
One of the ways the WISD has done that is via a popular program known as Mom Power, a collaboration with the University of Michigan-based Zero to Thrive
According to Novara, Mom Power is an evidence-based curriculum that helps teach moms "to relate to their children [and] helps them understand how to follow their child's cues, what their child might [mean by] their behavior. So if a child is really upset about something, it might not be what you originally think it is. It might be something else, and certainly it's not personal."
WISD Program Manager Shannon Novara.
While the current iteration of the program has not yet been implemented under the latest round of millage funding, Novara and Hierman say Mom Power groups have filled up quickly in the past. They expect the next group to begin in a few months.
Typically, moms bring their children with them to sessions. While the moms engage with the curriculum, children are cared for in a separate area. Later, everyone shares a family-style meal.
"[For] so many of us — we don't receive a handbook to be parents, and we're kind of thrust in that situation, and it's difficult," Novara says.
She says Mom Power "is a way of reassuring moms about their own skills and also emphasizing self-care."
"Okay to not be okay"
Fardig-Diop is adamant that mental health should be regularly discussed at school, but she knows she isn't always — or often — in the majority.
"Within the community that I work in," she says, "there's a lot of, like, 'You don't talk about that kind of stuff at school,' or, 'What's at home stays at home and you don't talk about your problems with people,' for fear of being discriminated [against] or judged. There's very real concerns and real reasons why parents don't want their young people necessarily talking about that."
At the same time, she sees a real value in being "open and vulnerable" with students, and frequently does so. Fardig-Diop has shared her own experience of postpartum depression, as well as her need to seek therapy and medication, with students.
Lauren Fardig-Diop, Achieving College and Career Education culture and climate coach.
"We need to normalize these conversations because so many of us are going through it and so many of us feel like we're alone and that we don't have other people to connect with or talk with about this," she says. "And that's not the case."
She adds, "I think that when we as adults lead with and have the space to be vulnerable about our own situations and our own mental health past and history and concerns, it opens up the space for young people to be like, 'It's okay to do that. It's okay to not be okay and it's okay to talk about this.'"
Fardig-Diop says the millage funding helps ACCE normalize conversations around mental health by integrating things like the Zen Room into everyday conversation.
"It's pretty phenomenal," she says. "I'm really proud of the work that we've done to make this not just a small thing, but like this is embedded in the culture of our school."
Natalia Holtzman is a freelance writer based in Ann Arbor. Her work has appeared in publications such as the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Literary Hub, The Millions, and others.
All photos by Doug Coombe.