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Recent school lockdowns leave students anxious; counselor advises parents on how best to discuss

Sarah Fedishen works at the Aspen Hope Center as the program director. Part of her role includes running a school-based mental health program, where clinicians travel to schools to support students dealing with mental health issues.
Halle Zander
Aspen Public Radio
Sarah Fedishen works at the Aspen Hope Center as the program director. Part of her role includes running a school-based mental health program, where clinicians travel to schools to support students dealing with mental health issues.

Students in the Aspen and Roaring Fork school districts are still recovering from lockdowns in February and March initiated by threatening phone calls that came into the Pitkin and Garfield county dispatch centers.

School counselors are trying to help students process their feelings about these scary events, but many students also want to process these feelings at home.

Sarah Fedishen (FED-ish-enn) is the program director for the Aspen Hope Center and runs their school program, which places clinicians at 14 schools in the Roaring Fork Valley.

Halle Zander spoke with Fedishen this week about how to support students after school lockdowns.

Zander: Given the recent lockdown scares, how do you feel like students are faring?

Fedishen: The kids are talking about living in a state of anxiety and not knowing what to expect, and they're curious why people at school and their parents aren't talking to them more about this and how they can handle this anxiety. They're also worried that maybe this is just becoming the norm, and they're not sure how to, how to push the conversation I think.

Zander: The lockdown scares happened about a month ago, but this week we saw three students and three adults killed in a school shooting in Nashville, Tennessee. Is it something that's come up that's brought, you know, those fears back almost to the surface?

Fedishen: No, we don't really seem to see students escalate during those times. I think they're more internalizing the stress of that, because if you did have big reactions each time it happened, that would be really hard to regulate. So I think they're trying to figure out how to take this information in and put it in context. And I also don't think we're asking them very much about how it's affecting them.

Zander: So you talk a little bit about students internalizing these shootings and essentially seeing them as pretty standard now in our country. Is that a healthy response to this kind of trauma?

Fedishen: No, and we are really feeling the consequences of that. I think part of it is, you know, we do sometimes have to put things on a shelf or contain it so we can get through our life. But if we never give ourselves the opportunity to explore that, to get curious about it, and to see how it's affecting our mental health, our physical health, there are huge consequences to that.

Zander: So, what does that look like?

Fedishen: Sure. I think what we're seeing in youth right now is, you know, we've had social media and now we've had this exposure to all of these incidents that are happening worldwide. And we see that youth are now exposed to it when they don't have, you know, that cognitive resilience that you need to have when you're exposed to so much information, especially traumatic information. And so what we're seeing is increased anxiety, increased depression, increased suicide attempts, because our youth are really dealing with some big things and they're constantly dealing with it every single day. Now, we really have to promote breaks because they—they're just taking in so much every single day.

Zander: As a parent, as somebody who has a student in their life, what's some advice for how to start approaching this conversation?

Fedishen: Yeah, well, I think it really should be led by our youth. They really want us to stop and listen. I think parents are doing the best they can. Educators are doing the best they can. And I think we're just trying to hold things together right now, and it probably feels like we're Band-Aiding a situation. From the youth that I've talked to, [they] have really talked about slowing down and checking in with them and asking them what they need versus us just creating programs or doing things to them. They don't think we really know what it's like to go to school, have these drills, feel like you're unsafe in the place where everybody's telling you should feel safe.

Zander: And what about at home? What does it look like? Asking kids how they're doing at home?

Fedishen: Yeah. Yeah, I think it's important for us as parents to be regulated before we have these kinds of conversations. So sometimes we hear something on the radio or we get exposed to something and we come in and we're kind of hot and heavy and worried, and that's not what our kiddos need to feel. But when we're regulated and we put our phones away, trying to find out how this does affect them, it takes that time and that intention.

Zander: You talk about parents needing to regulate themselves a little bit before going into conversations like this. Do you have any tips? What does that look like for a parent?

Fedishen: Yes. Regulation looks like, that you're breathing deeply, that you're able to really get to your, you know, your frontal cortex where you can make good executive decisions. If you're in your emotional brain, we call it, your kids pick up on that and they're not sure how to, how to handle that. So they're trying to take the information you're in, plus all the energy you're putting out there. So if you can come in regulated and stable and you have this conversation, what we see is co-regulation. So your kiddo will then pick up how you're staying regulated and how you're having this conversation. And then they're able to take that in and learn from it, or you're giving them that space to be able to do that.

Zander: I'm going to pose somewhat of an impossible question: what do kids need these days to feel safe in school?

Fedishen: I think it looks different in each school, in each community. What I believe is giving schools resources and the permission to slow down and to do these social-emotional check-ins and supports and not to put it all on teachers. Teachers have such a big job. But it's partnering, you know, with agencies and others that can come in and help create this space.

Zander: You know, in Nashville, what I'm seeing is a lot of community organizers coming forward and demanding gun reform. And in Colorado, we're actually seeing some gun reform legislation move forward. So I'm curious, are kids tuned into that at all? And does it bring any sense of relief to know that our elected officials are, are making some headway?

Fedishen: Oh, yeah. I think they're pretty aware of what adults are doing and what decisions they're making and when it, when it isn't taken to heart, they feel it.

Zander: Anything else you want to add from our conversation today? Things that adults, our community should know about what kids are going through right now?

Fedishen: I think we have a tendency to be negative about phones, about social media, but this is their reality. This is all they, you know, some of them have ever known. And so I think it's honoring that, “Yes, you can have a phone, you might feel some connection. You might be able to get this information.” And it also can be something that can hurt your mental health and something that needs to be managed. I think our youth, they kind of tend to close down when they get home and they're overwhelmed and they'll go to their room. But any time you can bring in connection, or, even it's just a few minutes, especially for our adolescents that seem to go and go and hide, it will, it's a wonderful investment.
Copyright 2023 Aspen Public Radio . To see more, visit Aspen Public Radio.

Halle Zander