When it comes to access to mental health care at public schools, California ranks at or near the bottom according to a Columbia University report. But one Merced high school is going against that tide with an entire course dedicated to mental health. Kids are responding so positively, they’re becoming advocates themselves.
Among those students is 18-year-old Jonathan Swart.
“I was homeless at 14, so all these things fed into me getting picked up in foster care,” he says. “I didn’t really care about school.”
Swart was a junior at Merced High School when he found out he didn’t have enough credits to finish in four years, so he started attending Yosemite High School. Some consider it a “last resort” for kids at risk of not graduating. And it's fair to say he was wary of authority types.
“If they're doing their job because it’s their job, and they’re not really doing it to make a change or really try and help a kid, we can tell,” Swart says of teachers and counselors. “We'll call it nine times out of ten. You know, we’ll call it every time.”
But then he met Viviana Barajas. He and other students had weekly meetings where she would teach them how to shift their perspectives, and why paying attention to mental health matters. It wasn’t long before Swart and his peers had an idea.
“We just started cracking jokes,” Swart says. Like, “‘Well we're in here so damn much, we might as well just make it a class,’ and then we did. It literally started out as a joke”
Barajas took their idea and developed a curriculum for a mental health, wellness and advocacy course and got it approved. She taught the class this year for the first time with Swart as one of her students.
“When the kids can learn why they make decisions that they do, when they can learn that the challenges in their life, these labels that they’ve had, how that affects them,” they can succeed, says Barajas.
The class covered common mental health challenges for teens, as well as how brains develop what Barajas calls “pathways.”
“So we can't change what has happened to them in the past,” says Barajas. “But we can change, build new pathways where they can see things through a different lens.”
Barajas wasn’t hired to be a teacher; she’s actually a consultant. Her background is in counseling, and she’s a certified Nurtured Heart Approach Advanced Trainer. But she says that approach helps her work with students: the gist of it is positive reinforcement - giving energy to what’s going right, not what’s going wrong.
“I'm a ninja at looking at the positives,” says Barajas. “Even if you just got into a fight, I'm like, wow. He handled this really nicely, or he was able to calm down in 5 minutes instead of 8 minutes. So I tend to look at things through such a positive lens that I couldn’t say that I've ever worked with a youth this did not work with.”
With the mental health class, there seems to be a correlation: This year, students who were enrolled did better academically than those who weren’t. Some of Barajas’ students even created an afterschool club to spread awareness about mental health and access to services. They call it, the “Greatness Project.”
On this day, only a few kids attend their weekly meeting - it’s the end of the year. But those who have arrived are working on a promotional video.
Barajas sits in a small circle of chairs with other students and staff while Jonathan Swart reads from a script, an instrumental beat from his phone as the background sound.
“I feel like teachers think it's that easy, as easy as ‘stay safe this weekend, see you monday. Have fun kids stay safe’.”
He and Barajas explain that they imagine this audio running while visuals of Merced flash across a screen.
One former student, Jayla Boyle, nods her head with the music as Swart continues.
Boyle graduated last semester, but the 18-year-old still comes back to campus every week for club meetings. LIke Swart, she was in foster care and moved around a lot.
“I was having problems all the time, like I was throwing Chromebooks at students, throwing things at teachers, throwing Chromebooks over the balcony,” Boyle says. A teacher suggested she talk to Barajas.
“When Ms. V was talking to me, I was checking her out, like can I trust you?” Boyle says. “She was talking to me and talking to me, and I was like, 'wow, she really gets me'.”
She says being in Barajas’ mental health class and collaborating with other advocacy groups for the Greatness Project have changed her life.
“People label us like, oh that's the bad kid school,” says Boyle. “Just being where we are today and coming together with other organizations, it makes you feel really good. Like, we're the bad kid school and we're almost at the top.”
Boyle doesn’t throw Chromebooks anymore, and she tries to focus on the positives. When she catches herself getting mad or upset, she resets, takes a deep breath and reminds herself that it’s okay.
Marilyn Mochel is with the Merced County National Alliance on Mental Illness. She says Merced has a lot of needs, but not a lot of funding. So she’s excited to see teens advocating for a class and club that address mental health awareness.
“If nobody says anything, nothing will change and then we know what the result is.,” says Mochel. “We can look around today and see it.”
The Greatness Project is even seeking board members and filling out paperwork to become a non-profit so the students can raise money to help youth in Merced. Swart says he no longer just sees his involvement as a side project.
“It sounds kind of cheesy, but it's like Spider-Man movies,” Swart explains. “If you have the option to help somebody, it almost makes it a responsibility, because if you can help somebody why wouldn't you?”
Swart graduated this week. This summer, he’s going to be certified to teach the Nurtured Heart Approach, and plans to keep working with the Greatness Project.