Counseling Alumnae Andie Nishimi '20 and Jenna Wrobel '06 on Providing Mental Health in High Schools

Andie Nishimi, '20Saint Mary's Counseling alumnae, Jenna Wrobel ‘06 and Andie Nishimi ‘20, provide insight into how they as counselors have adapted to meet the shifting mental health needs of high school students due to the pandemic.

2020 was a difficult year, punctuated with heavy grief and seemingly insurmountable challenges. With the new decade came unforeseen collective trauma, stemming from a devastating global health pandemic, an innumerable number of lives lost, and irreversible lifestyle changes. As the nation seesawed between the threat of sudden closures and the uncertainty of rushed reopenings, the brunt of the blow fell upon school-aged students, who were left to cope with the abrupt switch from in-person instruction to indefinite virtual distance learning. The school environment with teachers and peers represents a source of social and emotional stability which was suddenly unavailable to students learning from home; with this newfound instability, it has been up to staff and mental health professionals to find a way to fill a gap that had not existed at this magnitude before.

To understand more about how to help students adapt to these high-intensity changes and challenges, we interviewed  Saint Mary’s College of California alumnae Jenna Wrobel ‘06 and Andie Nishimi ‘20, both of whom are credentialed school counselors working within the Acalanes Union High School District (AUHSD).

Wrobel, a dual-track School Counseling and Marriage and Family Therapy graduate, has served as a school counselor at Campolindo High School in the AUHSD for many years. When a position opened up for a coordinator role at the Wellness Center in her high school, she took it immediately. She describes her current position of wellness coordinator and yoga teacher at Campolindo High School as her “dream role.”

“[The Kalmanovitz School of Education] at Saint Mary's was a homebase for me,” Wrobel said. “[Some] people have that transformative experience in undergrad, I had that in grad school. It was a life-changing experience for me. I am grateful for the education I received and I am just so thrilled that I am able to give back to the counseling profession in our district by providing clinical supervision for Saint Mary's students who serve as counseling trainees in our Wellness Centers.”

The Wellness Centers in the AUHSD not only provide necessary mental health support to their students, but they also offer Saint Mary’s Counseling graduate students the opportunity to fulfill their field placement graduation requirement and receive academic credit for hands-on practical experience. Nishimi is one such alumna who benefited from this opportunity — she recently graduated from the Kalmanovitz School of Education, also with dual-track School Counseling and Marriage and Family Therapy specializations. She began working at Miramonte High School’s Wellness Center during her counseling field placement in the fall of 2019, and once she graduated the following spring, she was able to attain a full-time role as a wellness coordinator.

“We construct mental health and wellness-based lessons on various topics that every student in all of the grade levels will participate in and be able to learn more about,” Nishimi said.

Nishimi explained how her final semester at Saint Mary’s was disrupted by the onset of the pandemic, and that living through such circumstances has given her the opportunity to provide support to her students.

“I was a student during the pandemic, and experienced firsthand what it took to shift to a new format of learning and also witnessed the challenges that came from such a drastic life transition… I'm able to bring that into my work and really harness that to understand the challenges our students are going through.”

According to Wrobel, some of the biggest challenges facing students at this time are social isolation, lack of face-to-face social interaction, and being on the computer every day. The latter, she believes, is the most harmful.

“It is exhausting being on the screen all day long, for both adults and kids — they’re tired in different ways,” Wrobel said. “There’s a lot of things going on for the learners. A lot of our requests are that our kids need to be in-person, so we offer in-person meetings by appointment and by prioritizing the highest-need students. Otherwise, we provide the vast majority of our services virtually.”

Jenna Wrobel, '06Nishimi agreed. “We have a lot of students who report struggling with academic pressure, anxiety, technology overuse, and isolation and disconnection. I think, in some ways, you can link some of those up to the pandemic; the technology overuse is understandable because there's a 9 to 3 school day, plus homework is on a computer. The isolation and disconnection make sense in the context of not being able to have some of the same stable and predictable peer experiences like at school, after-school sports, clubs, etc.”

Wrobel was a member of the multi-disciplinary steering committee that created Wellness Centers in the district, whose services primarily provide mental health services, but also some sexual health resources in partnership with Planned Parenthood. In addition to addressing student needs, Wrobel has begun to prioritize the need to offer spaces for staff as well as students at Campolindo High School.

Nishimi stressed the importance of every person, whether they be staff, student, or neither, to remember two things:

“The first thing is, this [pandemic] is unprecedented. It’s okay if you’re showing up differently than you did before, or if you're struggling and having a really hard time. There's absolutely no guidebook for how to get through this. So honoring whatever you need to do in order to kind of survive it is really important.”

“The other piece of advice I would offer,” Nishimi continued, “that I found helpful with the students, specifically, is really delineating between what is good enough, versus the standards you would ordinarily hold yourself to. Because this is so unprecedented, and we're all feeling the impacts in our bodies and our minds and in our creative energies, it's okay if you're not performing at the same levels you were pre-pandemic.”