Written by Orlando Dobbin //
“You had a parent who died too!?” said Jasmine* in the grief support group I facilitated during my school counseling internship last spring for three kindergarteners and two first graders.
Jasmine was having a really tough Kindergarten year. She was constantly in trouble, starting to fall behind academically, and struggling in her relationships with peers. Who could blame her though?
Can you imagine the intense and overwhelming emotions a six-year-old would feel upon having their parent die unexpectedly? How these feelings would make maintaining relationships, doing school work, and just getting through life extremely difficult. Now imagine trying to navigate and overcome these difficult and complex feelings without the help of a trained mental health professional.
Many youths in our country, including Jasmine, don’t have to imagine this—it is their reality.
It is estimated that approximately 25% of youth in the US are in need of mental health services, but only one in five of these students receive the services they need. The outlook of students of color and from low income families is even more grim as they are more likely to need the help of a mental health professional but less likely to have access to the support of a mental health professional due to lack of insurance, fewer mental health services in their communities, and lack of transportation. Similar to Jasmine, students with unmet mental health needs consistently have worse school outcomes than their peers.
As a school counselor, I and my colleagues work to make sure that all students have access to the mental health support they need to grapple with life’s difficulties and overcome obstacles to them reaching their potential. School counselors make professional mental health care more accessible to youth by offering students services such as short-term individual counseling, classroom lessons on topics related to mental health, referrals to outside mental health services when necessary, and support groups for students dealing with life’s hardships. Last year during my school counseling internship, I conducted over 150 individual counseling sessions, 30 classroom lessons, two parent consultations, and eight support groups.
One of the support groups I facilitated was the grief group that Jasmine was in. My uncle died unexpectedly during the group, so I too was grieving the loss of a love one. In the group, I tried to create a space where Jasmine, myself, and the other students could remember the loved one they lost, actively mourn their death, and learn ways to cope with the heartbreaking experience.
The students all shared sacred stories of their favorite memories with their loved ones and talked about ways they could take steps towards letting go of their loved ones while still finding ways to remain connected to them. Being able to be a part of the group gave Jasmine and the other four students an opportunity to make meaning out of the chaos that was happening in their lives, experience healing, and receive the support they needed to take steps towards not allowing this tragedy to become an obstacle to them becoming the best version of themselves.
Having access to professional mental health support allowed Jasmine to have an opportunity to know that she was not alone in her suffering and to find connection and belonging amongst other students who had also lost a parent.
Without the presence of a school counselor, it is unlikely that Jasmine or these students would have been able to participate in such a support group. The closest opportunity to join a grief group for these students was roughly thirty-five minutes away. Even if they were able to find the time to make the 35 minute trip, group therapy typically costs $35 per session – well outside of the price range for many low income families.
I dream of a day when all youth have access to the support they need to have their mental health needs met. Until that day, I will continue to work alongside other school counselors to provide youth like Jasmine with access to the professional mental health support they need to overcome life’s hardships and become the best possible version of themselves. May we all reflect on how we may be able to use our various skills and careers to create a world where all people have access to the things they need to reach their full potential.
*Jasmine’s name has been changed to protect her privacy.
Orlando Dobbin recently completed a Masters in Professional School Counseling at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He currently works as the In-School Suspension Program Coordinator at an elementary school in Pittsboro, NC.