When friends would ask Madisyn Donovan if she was okay, she would insist she was fine, but internally, she felt like she was at the bottom of a 10-foot pit and couldn’t escape.
Donovan, then a freshman at South San High School, had just enrolled in the early college program and was feeling more than the typical academic pressure of transitioning from middle school to college classes.
“I would say I’m fine, stop prying, leave me alone, I’ll fix it myself, I’m good,” Donovan said. “I needed someone else to help.”
But an internal voice nagged at her.
You’re not going to succeed anyway, why are you even trying? Nobody likes you. Why even wake up? Why even come to school?
Eventually, a friend pushed Donovan to approach school counselors for help. When she did, she felt she wasn’t supported as she walked away with a reference sheet of counseling services to visit outside of the school.
As members of the high school’s Enrichment Club, which advocates for solutions to student problems, Donovan and other students started researching their options and what they found was distressing.
Of the 14 recommended clinics and practices, only two were located on San Antonio’s Southside. Not all 14 accepted Medicaid or CHIP, and the majority were located above Loop 410 on the Northside.
The two clinics located nearby had fluctuating hours depending on the day, but typically closed at 5 p.m. on weekdays, which was a challenge for Donovan, who didn’t have a car of her own, and for other students whose parents often worked past that time.
Donovan’s discovery about the dearth of mental health resources on the Southside sparked a passion to fight for more aid in her school and community. She found willing partners in her fellow club members and realized that mental illness was a much more pervasive issue than she originally realized.
As an individual struggling to put a name to her emotions, she felt alone, but with a community of students in the South San Antonio Independent School District that understood and felt similar challenges, Donovan felt empowered.
Melivia Mujica, one of the founders of Enrichment Club, could empathize with what Donovan was feeling. Growing up, Mujica struggled with separation anxiety. As time went on, academic responsibilities became stressors and Mujica realized what she was feeling needed to be addressed.
“I would have meltdowns in the shower and I would say, God why am I alive, why are you letting me suffer this much?” Mujica said. “And then it kind of went on and it was like, okay you clearly haven’t taken me back home with you, so what do I have to do?”
Mujica went to her pediatrician to diagnose the cause of her meltdowns, and the doctor recommended counseling.
“Right then and there, that first counseling session, my therapist said yeah, you have depression and anxiety, that’s what it is,” Mujica said.
Keeping those experiences in mind, Mujica and Donovan, now a senior and junior, are working with other members of the Enrichment Club to demand change – in their community, and close to home at their campus and school district.
If they had access to better resources, understood more about mental illness, and were able to have an open conversation about what proper mental health looked like, they wouldn’t have struggled as much, they said.
In April, members of the club attended a South San Kids First meeting at Palo Alto College. They addressed the audience and spoke with community members about what they viewed as a gap in mental health resources on campus. South San High School, home to 2,600 students, employs eight of the district’s 20 counselors and shares the district’s behavior specialist, Susan Arciniega, with the other 12 campuses.
Arciniega’s previous title was social worker and her role still functions as such. When she started in the district about two decades ago, she only covered middle schools, but since that time has adjusted to cover all 13 campuses.
There’s a big gap in these numbers from South San to nearby districts of similar sizes. Harlandale ISD, with 14,360 students, employs 40 counselors and 14 social workers. Edgewood ISD, with 10,410 students, has a staff of 26 counselors and 12 social workers.
South San’s financial troubles constrain staffing levels – last month, trustees asked voters to approve a tax rate increase to bring in an additional $6.3 million in revenue. This money could have funded a number of different positions and covered a district deficit.
Voters rejected the increase, however, and board members instead had to grapple with which core services to slice. Leading up to the budget approval meeting in late August, trustees were reviewing their contract with Communities in Schools, a nonprofit that has 12 staff members in the district that offer support services to students.
Trustees ultimately spared CIS, but the financial limitations still existed.
CIS staffers help students academically, but also can refer them to counseling; connect them with housing, food, or basic supplies; and offer programs like a counseling group focused on positive thoughts.
Three of these CIS employees work with students at the high school, but many believe they are spread too thin and can’t offer enough support.
Two of the South San High School CIS site coordinators share a caseload of about 140 students. A visiting clinical caseworker spends three days a week in South San but is shared with three other districts, and manages a caseload of 65 students between all four.
The school’s counselors are viewed by club members as academic in nature.
“Honestly all I know that they do is they just make our schedules and prep us for college,” junior and Student Council President Marc Mendiola said. “[I]t seems like someone to guide you to get to college or get good grades.”
Lead Counselor Charlie Gallardo wants students to know his team does more than just help change schedules. They can help students with social-emotional needs and refer them to CIS or counseling services if it is beyond their capacity, he said.
Donovan doesn’t blame Gallardo’s team for not helping her more with her own mental health journey but wishes there were more staff and support services in place to offer assistance.
The counselors and CIS employees, too, wish they could have an unlimited amount of extra support, but realize it can be unrealistic to depend on that possibility.
“I think we would all like to say I want 25 counselors here … of course we know that is not going to happen,” Gallardo said. “The outcry [for support] has been there from us.”
Arciniega tries to bridge gaps where she can with partnerships and grants. She’s in talks with Our Lady of the Lake University to bring in social work interns to increase her own capacity, JOVEN Youth Organization San Antonio to offer group counseling, and Family Service Association for “students who fall through the cracks.”
As one South San teacher said, though, anything having to do with grant money can be taken away.
Outside partners who don’t have a permanent place or sure funding streams on campus can’t make up for long-term relationships that students trust, however. The reason Mujica and Donovan first felt empowered to talk about mental health was because of a powerful bond with one of their teachers, Arabella Daniels. Daniels became the sponsor of Enrichment Club, and over time, brought more and more students in by encouraging them to share about what they were going through and find a constructive solution.
“I’m not going to go to someone I don’t know or don’t trust and say I have a problem,” sophomore Evany Gonzalez said.
As more services arrive on campus through outside contractors, Enrichment Club wants to make sure there is a steady, permanent menu of services on the campus. At the top of their priority list are more social workers; mental health screenings for all students who register at the high school; and support groups for mental illness, incarceration, immigration, and dating violence.
They want to convert one of the closed down middle schools, possibly Kazen Middle School, and open it in partnership with the City and County as a mental health and community resources clinic.
“I think mental health has come into the forefront and it is just timing,” Arciniega said. “We are hopeful we can communicate the need and that there will be a response from the community that it was helpful so we can build sustainability. Right now, though, it is through grants.”