Virginia’s First Lady Pam Northam toured two Loudoun public schools to learn about the pioneering programs those schools run to support student mental health needs.
Northam, a former pediatric occupational therapist and teacher, visited J. Michael Lunsford Middle School and Freedom High School on Wednesday morning, two schools that have been on the leading edge of mental health programs both locally and nationally. In 2019, Freedom High School was among eight schools in the country picked by the National Council on Behavioral Health and Lady Gaga’s Born this Way Foundation to pilot the Teen Mental Health First Aid program. That program, which trains teens to identify friends who may be developing a mental health problem and how to help them, now runs along side a variety of other programs at the schools, which range from pairing disabled and non-disabled athletes, to musical programs, to other support systems with both peers and school employees.
The Loudoun School Board has also given mental health resources repeated budget boosts, with mental health teams for each school including school psychologists, school social workers, student assistance specialists, school counselors, school nurses, and administrators. Those are further bolstered by recent state and federal funding, and the school system has a systemwide Mental Health Taskforce to find out where the resources fall short.
Northam complimented what she called the schools’ gestalt approach to taking care of students’ mental health needs.
“Young adults here at high school, when they’re speaking, they’re speaking from a place where they know that they’re valued and cared for that, they feel safe and secure and that they’re really ready to learn,” Northam said.
Students during her visit told Northam about coming back to school after being away for so longer during the COVID-19 pandemic—both the apprehensions they had about returning, and the joys of being back together. Student Council Association President Aaron Weidner told her about organizing the first homecoming week back.
“Obviously at the beginning of the year, we weren’t sure really how all that was going to look with COVID and everything,” Weidner said. “But it was amazing, and I think just the school spirit all around was really on a whole other level.”
Other students echoed that sentiment, that they were glad to be able to get back together—but also that there were some lessons learned from remote learning during the pandemic. Weidner said having Mondays off from class gave him a chance to take the weekend off and do schoolwork on Monday.
And while Weidner said he was half-joking, school counselor Darlene Adu-Gyamfi also said that’s an important perspective.
“We know that in the United States, we tend to be a little more overworked than a lot of developed nations,” Adu-Gyamfi said. “It’s a real point that the students are making when they’ve had this experience of one year … which is still is a five-day workweek for most of our students, they’re working hard on Mondays, our staff as well, so that flexibility was amazing.”
Northam said she would take the experience back to Richmond as a success story.
“We fought for additional counselors in our schools, and it almost brings me to tears to see five counselors in a school and be able to say, ‘hey, not only is this working on the ground, but this was so important through this devastating last year, year and a half,’” Northam said. “So to see it here, to see it working on the ground, to take this back to our legislators and say ‘thank you’ for prioritizing education.”
And, after the visit, the former high school biology teacher said it was hard to leave.
“I want to be with the students again. It just makes me so happy to see the educators back where I know they love to be, close to their students, making those connections and relationships that we heard the theme of over and over again today,” Northam said. “It is so important. You cannot teach without having those kinds of relationships.”
Freedom Principal Neelum Chaudhry said the keys to making their programs successful is building connections with the students, and support at the county level.
“The programs are fairly easy to put together, but unless you have that human connection with people, it makes it difficult for the program to be successful,” Chaudhry said. “And I think the other thing is that our county also really believes in it. So, whenever we come up with a program, we know that if we speak to the right people, there’s always support at the county level for how to help students.”
Northam’s visit was also covered by student journalists from Uncaged, Freedom High School’s newsmagazine, who asked her what her favorite part of the visit was.
“My favorite experience has to be talking to the students. They were incredible after what we’ve all been through in this last year, year and a half. They were really able to speak so eloquently about what it was like to be at home, how isolating that was in so many ways, although they were able to keep with their learning because of the terrific things that the teachers were doing here to help them during that time,” Northam said. “But how much more joyful and excited they were to be back in class back with their friends, back with their teachers and have that great peer support again.”