Sixteen-year-old Jorja Gonzales’s mom died when she was 11 years old. Then the pandemic happened and sitting in front of a Zoom call just didn’t seem worth her time. She stopped going to class, and she got in trouble. Eventually a judge ordered Gonzales to go to an outdoor-focused substance misuse treatment program in Sitka.
“It was amazing,” Gonzales said. “I liked it so much.”
She was also ordered to go to therapy, which she didn’t like.
“When I first went, I would try to avoid the things that she was wanting to talk about,” Gonzales said of meeting with her last therapist. “Like she wanted to talk about my mom and stuff like that, but she would talk about other problems that are going on in my life. Because I guess I don’t like to face my problems head-on. And when she asked me a question about it, I would answer it, and then I would completely change the subject.”
Listen to this story:
Gonzales shared all of this while sitting in her school counselor’s office at Benny Benson Alternative High School. She’s one of the 130 students on counselor Karen Hobart’s caseload, which is much smaller than average. After listening to Gonzales, Hobart cut into the conversation with an idea.
“Do you think you would go to a group if there were other teenagers who had experienced a loss of a parent?” she asked. “Would that be less intimidating than maybe a therapist?”
“Yeah, probably,” Gonzales said. “Because I would be around people my age instead of just one-on-one with somebody.”
Hobart told Gonzales about a grief group specifically for young people while jotting down notes on what to follow up on.
Hobart said her main goal as a school counselor is to help kids graduate, and that means looking at a lot more than just their grades or the number of credits they’ve earned. She also connects them to resources like food, safe transportation, or different types of mental health care.
Hobart isn’t alone in looking out for the 340 students at Benny Benson. There are multiple other counselors, and all of the staff pay attention to what they’re seeing in the school, too.
“They write anything to me,” language arts teacher Katherine Reiman said. “And I’m the one that gets all the things that get referred to the counselors because I make it very safe for the kids to write. They share stuff with me because I tell them their writing is private between them and myself.”
The students know she’s required to report self-harm, abuse, or potential harm to others. If Reiman is concerned about a student for any reason, she talks to them then lets Hobart or the other counselors know. The school nurse sends students to the counselors, too.
Hobart can offer some help, like connecting kids to resources. but she isn’t a licensed mental health clinician so she can’t provide long-term therapy. In the past, she could refer them to providers outside the office, but they often wouldn’t go. Either they had transportation issues or just didn’t follow-up. Now, she can send them to a mental health clinician who is based on the building. Having him there is a game changer, she said.
“If he was at the [mental health clinic’s] office, I don’t know that any of those kids that I sent to him would have gone to see him,” Hobart said. “But when he’s across the hall, and he it’s presented as ‘Hey, just let us go meet them there.’ They’ll do it.”
Robin Minoza, who works for a mental health non-profit in Anchorage called VOA-Alaska, said he sees a lot of kids with a lot of trauma. He said he knows he can’t help the students figure everything out, but he can help them see that needing help is ok and they aren’t broken.
“I always tell the kids, your brain’s not designed to make you a productive member of society. It’s designed to keep you alive. Which it has,” Minoza said.
There are school counselors at every high school in Anchorage, and some schools have mental health providers on-site. But Benny Benson’s limited enrollment and small class sizes make it much easier for all of the staff to get to know the students and see what’s affecting them. At schools with over 1,000 kids, it’s much harder.
Once Hobart helps students access mental health support and get their other basic needs met, then she can start focusing on her main goal of getting kids to graduation and beyond.
For her part, Jorja Gonzales isn’t sure what she wants to do in the future. She’s considering joining the military, going to college, or going to hair school.
“I want to pick something, and I want to stick with it and not change it,” she told her counselor.
Hobart suggested she enroll in the cosmetology program at King Tech High School in Anchorage.
Gonzales agreed to think about it. Even though she does n’t always follow through with Hobart’s suggestions for her, Gonzales said she’s glad that her counselor for her is always there for her and keeps trying.
This story is part of an ongoing solutions journalism project at Alaska Public Media about destigmatizing mental health. The project is funded by a grant from the Alaska Mental Health Trust but is editorially independent.