As a student in the Philadelphia School District, Noelia Rivera-Calderón didn’t feel like her issues with mental health were taken seriously.
Later, as a teacher, she felt helpless again, but this time it was because she didn’t have the proper mental health resources or training to help struggling students.
To shed light on the experiences of other Latina girls and nonbinary students in the School District, Rivera-Calderón helped lead the report “We Are Not Invisible: Latina Girls, Mental Health and Philadelphia Schools” for the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC). The report was co-authored by 13 middle and high school students.
“I felt that my experiences were just my experiences, but talking with the co-authors, I could tell that these are things that transcend the School District,” Rivera-Calderón said. “They came from different schools, public, charter, alternative and we’re experiencing a lot of the same things.”
The report’s findings
The NWLC held listening sessions with 21 students to discuss their experiences and suggestions for the treatment of mental health in Philadelphia schools, and 13 of those students became co-authors of the report.
Some of the students reported a stigma against Latina girls that characterizes them as crazy, selfish or just “fiery” for having issues with mental health. It’s a barrier to reaching out for help, but once they do take that step, the report stated that students can still feel like they’re not being taken seriously.
In Philadelphia, one in seven Latina girls has attempted suicide, according to the report. It also stated that more than half of Latina girls in the city feel persistently sad and hopeless.
Dr. Andrés Pumariega, formerly the chief of the department of psychiatry at Cooper University Hospital in New Jersey and now the chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Florida, said the report’s findings were accurate and reflective of national trends.
Some of the students reported a stigma against Latina girls that characterizes them as crazy, selfish or just “fiery” for having issues with mental health.
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Across the country, nearly half of all Latina high school girls felt persistently sad or hopeless to the point of being unable to engage in some usual life activities, according to a 2017 report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Pumariega said young women in the Latina community face “a perfect storm” of societal and cultural pressure that can lead to mental health difficulties.
“Latina young women are disproportionately affected by not only external stressors such as discrimination and bias [and] some of the unfortunate political issues right now around immigration,” he said. “At the same time, there’s the tension and conflict many times within the family and the community between the expectation for Latinas to be dedicated to the family and put their needs second versus the increasing exposure to a culture that promotes more independence and assertiveness on the part of young women.”
On top of that, Latina young women are expected to keep their complaints silent, Pumariega said.
When 18-year-old Angela Calderón was struggling with these issues, her guidance counselor at school minimized the anxiety she was dealing with, Calderón said.
It was even hard to explain her problems to mother, who Calderón said didn’t understand how she could be struggling with a sturdy and loving life at home.
Calderón transferred to El Centro de Estudiantes in Kensington, where “they don’t just treat us like we’re children or anything,” Calderón said. “They treat us like, OK, we’re friends and this is a professional environment. There are people that listen to us. Our counselors…I trust them as well. In my old school, I was afraid to talk to anybody.”
Hope for the future
When Rivera-Calderón was still in high school, she started attending weekly therapy sessions that were two hours outside of the city. An inconvenient ride, but a step toward her mental health recovery.
On bad days, Calderón will calm herself down by painting and talking to any of the three counselors at El Centro de Estudiantes.
While both were able to eventually reach out for help, the report still makes recommendations that will improve schools’ approach to their students’ mental health. The first? Changing school culture.
“These mental health challenges are parts of life that can be managed and are not your fault or anything to be ashamed of,” Rivera-Calderón said. “In fact, your school and your workplace has to accommodate you, not the other way around.”
Rivera-Calderón said there’s a stark lack of mental health training for teachers in the School District that needs to be addressed. For instance, some staff in the School District are only required to have one suicide prevention training every five years, according to the report. Rivera-Calderón remembers it being a non-engaging, online presentation that teachers click through and answer questions about afterwards.
Other suggestions in the report include providing a mental health break space in schools and supportive student circles for peer support. It also asks for more cultural competency by the School District.
According to data from a School District spokesperson, the number of Latino and Latina guidance counselors and teachers has increased annually since the 2016-17 school year, but they never made up more than 4 percent of the total School District. According to the NWLC report, Latina girls were 9.4 percent of the School District in the 2015-16 school year.
“In an effort to increase the number of Hispanic/Latino/a teachers and guidance counselors who work in the District, our recruitment team has established and deepened partnerships with Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs) and conducts targeted headhunting to identify potential candidates who are connected to organizations serving this population,” wrote School District spokesperson Lee Whack in a statement to Generocity.
Generocity had not the receive additional information it requested about the required mental health training for School District staff and the district’s overall response to the report at the time of publication.
Nick Ospa, the city wide organizer for the organization Youth United for Change, said he hopes the report materializes into real change in the School District. YUC connected NWLC to some of the students who participated in listening sessions for the report.
YUC has campaigned for better mental health treatment in the district since January 2018, including testimonies students made in front of City Council hearings about mental health, Ospa said. He added that YUC has sat down with certain School District officials but has been disappointed by a lack of response to follow-ups or action so far.
"We want students to be able to see themselves represented in this report and feel like their voices are being heard."
“I think the report that the National Women’s Law Center put out is a great resource for understanding why this issue is so important right now,” he said. “That report focuses on Latina and non-binary students, but that is just a microcosm, especially of a school district that is majority students of color. A lot of the issues that Latina folks are experiencing run parallel to other young women, to other people of color.”
The NWLC and co-authors hope to implement the report’s findings and the stories of the students into local and federal policy. Rivera-Calderón said Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez will meet with the student co-authors of the report over the summer to discuss a potential bill that would be introduced in the fall to bolster schools’ mental health support.
The report caught the eye of Congresswoman Mary Gay Scanlon, too. Scanlon represents Pennsylvania’s 5th Congressional District, which encompasses part of Philadelphia, in the U.S. House of Representatives. The congresswoman would also like to meet with the students to discuss a potential federal response, Rivera-Calderón said.
On a broader level, Rivera-Calderón hopes this report spurs a citywide conversation about the treatment of mental health in schools, especially as it impacts Latina girls.
“We really want to do our part with these for these conversations to be destigmatized and normalized,” Rivera-Calderón said. “We want people to see how important an issue this is. … We want students to be able to see themselves represented in this report and feel like their voices are being heard the way that I didn’t really feel like my voice was being heard when I was in high school.”-30-
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