Almost overnight, Belmont High School junior Lester Solis went from being a full-time student to being a full-time student saddled with a full-time job. When his mother lost her job to the pandemic in December 2020, he started working at Home Depot as an overnight stocker.
“We went from my mom having a job to not having a job within like a second. And that was pretty scary,” Solis tells KCRW. “I remember thinking, ‘Those bills are not going to wait. They might even kick you out.’ Because that's just how things are, you know? Money talks, and the rest just doesn't really matter.”
He worked nights, from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m., leaving him with little time to recover before classes started just hours later. His saving grace: the Wednesdays and Thursdays he had off work each week. But they soon offered little reprieve.
“I would clock in at 9, get out at 6, go home, eat some breakfast, probably go to like one class that was very important. … I kid you not, I'd be in bed by 10 or 11 a.m., and then wake up at like 7 p.m. or 8 p.m. And I'm like, ‘Wow, I gotta do this again,’“ he says. “I remember there was a point where my grades were just falling down because I was too busy trying to take care of my family, just making sure that they were okay, but my grades were literally put off to the side.”
The mental stressors were enough to bring the strong-willed teen to tears time after time.
“When I was at work, or when I was just at home doing nothing, I feel like that's where my mental health was kind of going dark because I wasn't getting that same interaction or environment that I had in school,” he shares. “I remember telling my friends like, ‘Hey, guys, like I work from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. Like, what do you guys have to complain about?’”
Today, two years later, Solis is a freshman at Cal State Northridge, but is still recovering from the stress he experienced during the pandemic. It’s a challenge that is all too familiar to thousands of students who have returned to LAUSD classrooms for in-person instruction. Many are still coping with the mental stressors they experienced over the last year and a half of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A national poll from the C.S. Mott Children's Hospital in Michigan found that nearly half of parents saw a new or worsening mental health condition among teens since the start of the pandemic.
So how is LA Unified addressing the clear and definitive need for student mental health support? COVID-19 relief funding, paired with a record $13.8 billion budget for the 2021-2022 school year, has allowed the district to open up 922 new psychiatric social workers and resource navigator positions.
But they’re still behind on filling the roles — only 25% of the total allocation have been hired thus far.
The need for these roles is clear. Since establishing a mental hotline for students and other members of the LAUSD community, the district has received more than 27,000 phone calls asking for help, according to Joel Cisneros, the district's director of student mental health.
Why going back hasn’t been easy for students
Readjustment during this period has proved difficult for some students as they reacclimate to an increased workload and the demands that come with in-person instruction. That's according to social worker Marta Orozco, who works at an LAUSD family wellness center based at Monroe High School in North Hills.
“The kids have been telling me they do have more assignments and more clubs out there available to them. So they have more responsibilities. Some of them are involved in sports, so they're juggling normal teen activities, with the pandemic, and also their own mental health, and it can become overwhelming sometimes,” she explains.
She adds that some students are reporting feeling anxious and depressed, and are exhibiting social anxiety and concerns over body image.
“Some of these kids went over a year or more without seeing their friends. And naturally during that time period, their bodies change. They became accustomed to lounging around in pajamas or casual outfits. And then all of a sudden, they're back to seeing their peers on a daily basis. Some of my seniors have senior portraits, homecoming activities, yearbook photos, and then they start to worry about how they may come across after such a long absence.”
There’s also the unknown burden students may be carrying with them into the classroom on a daily basis, says fellow Monroe High School social worker and program manager Rupal Mankassarian.
“For so many of these children, they don't have a space at home where they could just log on their computer and tell their therapist every difficult detail that's going on,” Mankassarian says. “So I think for so many families, it's like they've just been silenced, because they can't access the therapist or the teacher, whoever else that would be a support to them in a way that is actually safe or comfortable”
Despite these setbacks, she points out that students are resilient, and she’s hopeful they’ll be able to bounce back soon.
“The notion of ‘this child's failing, or the child's not working hard or trying hard enough,’ it's just so not true,” she says. “I think sometimes it's just really easy to forget how much we're asking [of them] and how hard it is. And so I think for whatever small hurdle that these children can sort of overcome, to just really be mindful of how resilient they are, [and] how amazing it is that they're showing up and trying as much as they are, because they think they're all trying.”
She adds, “We've all had this awful setback and we will continue to persevere. ... I think children and adolescents are the ones who do it best. They tend to adapt far better than we as adults to begin with. And so I think again with this challenge, they're going to make up what they lost and … they're probably going to come out stronger because of it.”
This story was produced as a part of a project for the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s 2021 California Fellowship.