Gateway has long prioritized student mental health in recognition of the fact that 1) adolescence is a tumultuous time for everyone even in the best of circumstances and 2) students can’t be expected to thrive at school if their emotional needs aren’t being met. Never has this been more apparent than this year as students and staff alike grapple with a transition of historic proportions in the return to in-person learning. To that end, we’re especially glad to have Angelica Posadas, GHS’ new Director of Counseling, on our team. We sat down with her to discuss her approach to working with student mental health and how the first few months of school have been.
How did you become interested in working in mental health, and with young people specifically?
I’ve been working with young people for over 15 years. Initially I wanted to be a classroom teacher, but always found myself drawn to working in after-school programming or doing CBO (Community Based Organization) work outside of the classroom with students. I was introduced to counseling as an after school program director, where I realized the strong correlation between what happens in the classroom and the outside community students are a part of. Students are people with identities that are much bigger than the classroom, and we need to get to know them outside of academics first, if we expect them to be successful.
How would you describe your approach to working with students? I think young people are often the most misunderstood group of people in our community. Adults in the outside world can label youth as “up to no good,” or lost with no sense of direction, especially in inner city San Francisco. But most of the time that’s because no one takes the time to listen to them. I approach all young people as if they have a story to tell. And even if it’s not a great story so far, just one adult to listen and support can make a big difference. Students this age will make mistakes, and that isn't a fair judgment on who they are as a person – and it’s important that they know that.
Are you seeing impacts from the pandemic on student mental health? We knew to expect mental health challenges as students returned to school after spending so long at home, that this would be a challenging transition. To actually see it among our students has been really difficult. I think sometimes we as adults have so much urgency around “getting back to normal” and making sure our kids are safe physically, but we (as a society) have not done a universally good job of acknowledging that all young people went through a traumatic time, and naming that experience as the grief and grieving that is it.
So when I see students with stress or anxiety related to this transition, my focus is on really listening to them, and acknowledging that these changes are huge. A lot of students operate on routine and any shift to normalcy is a big deal for them, and often they don't know how to name what's going on with them as anxiety or stress. So it’s very important to name their experience, and emphasize that this is a very normal response to what we’ve all gone through.
What is your favorite thing about your new role? Before coming to Gateway, I had spent the past eight years in a disciplinary role, which isn’t really fun, and it’s definitely not what I went to grad school and got licensed for. I love that now I’m getting to use a lot of practice and theory from my training, and that I have the opportunity to be a more supportive, positive figure in students’ lives and build relationships with them.
I also haven't worked at a high school in a long time, and adjusting to working with these “mini adults'' who talk about driving (and how hard it is to park in the city!) work and applying to college was a little challenging at first, but it’s a lot of fun. They’re at such an exciting time in their lives. And the support and collaboration at Gateway are just great.