Sometimes, taking a step toward better mental health can be as simple as thoughtfully peeling an orange.
As hundreds of students in San Mateo County schools are now learning, thanks in part to a partnership with Mills-Peninsula Medical Center, such an action can help a person to pause, take stock of how they are feeling, and then use some simple, practical skills to restore balance in their nervous system. It’s all part of the Community Resiliency Model (CRM), a set of mental health skills that the students, as well as many teachers and parents, are learning with support from donor gifts to MPMC’s Adolescent Mental Health Program.
The teenage years can be a minefield of emotions. Depression, anxiety and behavioral disorders are some of the leading causes of disability and illness among teens, according to the World Health Organization. And when those issues are not addressed in a timely manner, they can follow a teen into adulthood. The COVID-19 pandemic, of course, didn’t help. Eighteen percent of teenagers say the pandemic had a “significant negative effect” on their mental health, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Good mental health is a critical part of overall good health, says Inger Bischofberger, who with her husband, Norbert, made the lead gift for a five-year mental health initiative. “It’s critical that young children are taught that maintaining good health includes paying attention to our thoughts and emotions, not just keeping our bodies physically active,” Inger says.
The mental health initiative is designed to build on and expand four key areas of community mental health services, including an improved inpatient experience, leadership training and partnerships with key local institutions. Teaching the Community Resiliency Model in San Mateo County schools is a core part of the fourth area, prevention and education.
Finding Your Resilient Zone
The Community Resiliency Model focuses on helping people get into the Resilient Zone, a state of being where the nervous system is well balanced, a person is able to think clearly and handle emotions well, and they feel like their “best self.”
According to the CRM, traumatic or stressful life events (or a triggering reminder of such an event) can bump a person out of their Resilient Zone. When that happens, the nervous system is out of balance, and the person may experience hyperarousal symptoms such as hypervigilance, anxiety, rage and panic, or hypo-arousal symptoms such as depression, fatigue and numbness. In the first state, the person may feel like they are “stuck on high,” always on edge. In the latter, they may feel “stuck on low.” Many people cycle from one extreme to another, as if they were on a roller coaster. Left unaddressed, these symptoms and emotions can lead to problems with school, family, friends and community.
Once trained in CRM, a person can recognize these symptoms and sensations, and understands the nervous system biology behind them. They know how to use some specific wellness skills to reset the nervous system, restore balance and return to the Resilient Zone.
Peeling an Orange
One 7th grade student who was learning about CRM mentioned that he sometimes used the act of peeling an orange to help himself pause and take stock of his emotional state. He didn’t know it at the time, but he was practicing Tracking, a simple skill that is the first step in practicing CRM. He was noticing sensations in his body, and identifying which were pleasant and which were not.
In the second CRM step, Resourcing, the students learn to identify internal and external resources, positive things or experiences that have meaning to them and can help them feel better. Resources can include nearly anything a person finds positive, such as special people, favorite hobbies, animals, humor, kindness and more. Focusing on those items, thinking about them in depth, and again tracking the sensations in the body, particularly any good feelings they prompt, helps the nervous system to get back into balance. To return to the Resilient Zone. The students are also taught several other CRM skills to help them feel more balanced, as well as how to track their resiliency daily and over time.
“We know through science that the more we practice these skills, the more they will become automatic,” says Molly Henricks, LMFT, coordinator of school safety and risk prevention with the San Mateo County Office of Education, who has been leading CRM training sessions. “We can train the brain to react to certain situations, like stress, by using a skill set like CRM. It can prevent you from becoming stressed; it can help you to stay in the ‘thinking’ brain. That’s where kids feel most comfortable. Teachers are already reporting back that they have seen students use this in the classroom to manage their emotions.”
The students are not the only ones benefitting from CRM training. Trainers are also holding sessions for teachers, staff and families.
“It’s never been harder to work in schools; teachers are stressed, and if an adult is stressed, they can’t help another person,” says Molly. “We are reaching teachers with tangible, usable skills around self-care. We’re providing tangible skills to reprogram the nervous system. This is a compassionate, empathic way to realize we are all human.”
The San Mateo County Office of Education began training educators to teach CRM in late 2020; since then, those educators have been teaching CRM skills to other educators, families and students. So far, Molly and other trainers have taught CRM to about 2,300 students. For families, they hold training sessions on Zoom in the evenings, including some sessions in Spanish. They plan to reach all 24 school districts and their faculty, students and families in San Mateo County over the next two years.
Each person who learns CRM skills is also encouraged to share their knowledge with others, thus fostering an entire community of people who understand how to restore resilience.
The County Office of Education is also using the philanthropic funds to provide additional social emotional learning curricula in the schools, as well as Care Solace services, which helps staff, families and students get access to counseling and other resources.
“These funds are helping us to ensure that all families in San Mateo County have access to the same level of services,” says Molly. “It’s helping to ensure a strong fabric of equity and access across the county.”