Catholic Herald Staff
Writer’s note: This is the first of a two-part series on mental health. The following covers efforts in Washburn County to help youths and young adults. The second part will focus on suicide prevention and care for family members and friends post-suicide.
The role of mental health has taken a giant step to the forefront during the COVID-19 pandemic. The current circumstances have opened opportunities to talk about issues that are nothing new for mental and behavioral health professionals.
“Physical health is more tangible,” noted Spooner Middle School social worker Ashley Villella. “Mental health isn’t always visible. It scares people and is easier to push away.”
However, the wife and mother of two, Catholic school parent and St. Francis de Sales parishioner shared that “the more you’re able to peel back your own layers and understand your own self, the better you can be for the people you love and serve … you’re able to give and serve in the way you were meant to.”
Villella and another St. Francis de Sales parishioner, Danette Hopke, are both part of Washburn County’s Mental Health Task Force, which started in 2018. The group’s mission is “to identify, address and improve mental health issues that face our community.”
To this end, the task force has brought together persons working in mental health, schools, health and human services, media, law enforcement, counseling agencies, healthcare and religious communities in Washburn County to create proactive strategies and develop effective programs.
Hopke’s involvement stems from her role as the local UW-Extension office’s youth and family educator. A mother of four young adults and wife to Spooner Elementary School’s principal, Hopke and her husband are long-time 4-H leaders and also serve as high school catechists for their parish.
One of the task force’s initiatives has been a countywide youth mental health screening adapted from programs used by other school districts in the state. It has been implemented for three years and parallels a process for service referrals.
As one point of exposure, Villella, who holds a master’s in social work from UW-Madison, commented that the screening has helped to “demystify what therapy and a therapist look like.”
It has also confirmed common denominators where young people are struggling.
The Mental Health Task Force of Washburn County was one of only five pilot sites in the U.S. awarded the CONNECTED grant by the National Counsel for Behavioral Health. The two-year grant program seeks to reduce the impact of anxiety, depression and suicide among young people ages 10-24 living in underserved communities as well as empower youths to engage in community change.
Villella shared that during the interview process for the grant, two factors that impressed the national council were the mental health screening initiative and the broad collaboration among diverse entities within the county.
The CONNECTED grant sponsors three local youths to lead communitywide efforts supporting mental health.
One of those sponsored youth is Anna Silvis. Silvis is a senior at Spooner High School, parishioner and recent confirmand at St. Francis de Sales and has attended many of the diocesan youth programs.
Silvis, who plans to pursue a nursing degree, has been working with two students from Birchwood High School to create a curriculum to address mental health challenges they and their peers are facing.
The trio is also serving on the Mental Health Task Force, the Community Alliance for Prevention and have partnered with local Community First initiatives.
Healthy Minds is solutions-focused and seeks to support the development of healthy coping skills. Licensed professionals who also serve on the task force have mentored the youth and reviewed the program’s content. While the youth themselves will facilitate the Healthy Minds program, they will have trained adult supervision.
COVID-19 has been both a help and hindrance to their efforts.
While highlighting the need for support resources and resilience skills, the implementation of Healthy Minds is facing the current challenges of social distancing and school guidelines limiting student interaction.
Silvis and her team members attended a conference in Denver in fall 2019 to meet with the grant recipients from the other four locations in the country. The two planned brainstorming and teamwork sessions since have had to be held virtually.
“We were just getting ready to start before the pandemic hit,” Silvis said.
Their first step to implement the curriculum was to create a commercial for it in order to break stigmas.
“We’re really just trying to open up the conversation for mental health because it’s so hidden,” she added, affirming, “But it’s definitely a reality.”
Content of Healthy Minds includes skills for coping with tragedy, practices for physical and mental health and self-image topics.
Silvis has high hopes for the program, taking into particular consideration how social media has shaped the entire reality for youth.
“Especially for my generation, your image has to be good,” she said. “You have to constantly be happy. You have to constantly be looking good. And it makes it so hard for us to just be authentic and real with each other.”
Villella confronts similar struggles with her middle school students and has also experienced young people’s needs in previous jobs working in juvenile day treatment and residential facilities.
She described the influence of social media as “huge.”
“They are connected all the time,” Villella said, “And not in a good way.”
Remembering her own childhood and early teen years, before personal cellphones were the norm, she commented that even though there was drama with friends and at school, “then you went home and didn’t think about it until the next day. Our kids are connected at all times, and they’re tired.”
Villella pointed out how little sleep students are getting. When they can’t fall asleep or wake up in the middle of the night, they’re right back on their screens.
“Middle-schoolers are not ready for the independence and freedoms that the culture makes parents assume their kids need,” Villella affirmed.
“Parents need to be reminded that they are the parent,” she said.
Simple strategies for phone limits and boundaries can make a real difference, and help adults with their own self-discipline.
The social worker finds that parents are overall very receptive to strategies and resources that will benefit their children. They want the best for their children – often already aware of difficult circumstances their child might be facing, or so overwhelmed themselves by challenges that they appreciate someone else’s caring interest in their child.
“I always lead with a collaborative approach,” Villella said in reference to reaching out to parents when she sees a student with particular needs.
She keeps the focus on how she can work with the parents, trying to dispel any feelings of guilt or shame.
Villella in no way hides that middle school is a “rough stage” when kids are dealing with puberty, figuring out their own identity and the role of friendships. Parents and children are adjusting expectations, responsibilities and privileges and often neither have a good grasp of the tools needed to navigate this period successfully.
From her own experience, Silvis admitted she is grateful her parents kept strict boundaries with technology.
She remembers her first flip phone during freshman year – just for texting – and then persuading her mom for a smart phone because everyone communicated via Snapchat and Instagram.
With the immediate gratification and rapid replies, Silvis sees how many of her peers are always on their phones.
Noting that she is barely on Snapchat anymore, the high school senior iterated the struggle for authenticity in friendships and depth in conversation.
Both Villella and Silvis commented on the role faith plays in their personal lives and how they are able to work through hardships.
Silvis dealt with a tragic loss in her family at a young age and cannot fathom how her family would have gotten through the suffering they faced, and still have to deal with, without their Christian beliefs.
Coherent in the living of her faith, Silvis’ peers all know she is a strong Catholic Christian, and she doesn’t want that to be an obstacle for schoolmates who might benefit from the Healthy Minds program she has worked on.
“It’s for everybody – there is no faith element” in the curriculum, she clarified, knowing there might be kids who really need the outreach but could be turned off thinking that if she is behind it, the program must be faith-based.
“We need to keep breaking stigmas,” she said.
In her work with middle school students, Villella recognizes the need to tread carefully but also shared that with increased acceptance of spirituality in broader terms, it can be acknowledged as a powerful tool. And for those students who are Christian and already have religious faith, she sees the important role faith can play for the student to fully actualize themselves.
She encourages students and parents to be honest with themselves and each other that “it does take a village.”
Villella remarked that kids who are glued to their phones are the kids who don’t have other things going on. She agreed that downtime is important and students shouldn’t be overcommitted, but they do need to be worn out – their bodies and minds need healthy exercise and engagement.
“Whatever piques their interest, get them involved,” she advocated.
Resilience resides in the students who have parents and other adults involved in their lives and are actively engaged in things that take them outside of themselves.
She concluded, “The kids not glued to their phones are the kids who have reasons not to be.”