Denair Unified dedicates an entire school day
to the mental health of its students

Denair Unified Superintendent Terry Metzger believes the mental health of high school and middle school students is so important that she devoted an entire school day to it Monday. There were no academic classes Monday at Denair High School, Denair Middle School and Denair Charter Academy. Instead, there was a wide-ranging program that featured a captivating keynote speaker, breakout sessions where students learned creative ways to cope, plenty of information from more than two dozen local agencies poised to help teens and their families, and a campus wide barbecue lunch.

The overarching message to students? You’re not alone in whatever you may be experiencing and there are others standing by ready to help. All you’ve got to do is ask.

Still, mental health remains a topic that many people are uncomfortable talking about or even acknowledging. The barriers are many – lack of confidence, misplaced pride, embarrassment, the feeling no one else could possibly understand the anxiety, depression or other emotions that cause too many people too much pain.

“The stigma is still alive and well – if you’re struggling mentally, there’s something wrong with you. And nothing could be further from the truth,” said Metzger.

Monday’s high-profile guest was Dr. Julia Garcia, a motivational speaker who has appeared before hundreds of audiences to relay a simple message – you’re not alone and in order to become the person you most want to be, you have to be able to ask for help.

Dr. J – as she calls herself – talked openly about her own family story growing up in Arizona that included a mother with addiction issues, a father who spent time in jail and she herself dealing with anger and depression. Even so, she earned a college soccer scholarship, but found herself in a dark place after she badly hurt her knee.

“I was so angry. And when I got hurt, I didn’t have sports anymore,” she told students. “So I partied. I didn’t want to feel anything. I got suspended. I almost lost my scholarship that I worked my whole life to get.”

Garcia said that “real strength is dealing honestly with emotions.”

“What happens when you keep it inside? It exploded,” she said of herself. “I almost didn’t survive until the age of 20. It’s a miracle I’m still alive. I was putting myself in life-threatening situations.”

The answer, Garcia explained, was to recognize she needed help – something she encouraged the hundreds of Denair students in the audience to do as well.

She then used some fun yet serious exercises involving students to underscore the theme. One involved challenging two soccer players to try to score a goal blindfolded – difficult to do alone but made easier when they were allowed to call friends from the stands to help them.

Later, she asked students to each write answers to a series of questions about what they were feeling at a tough moment in their lives, what kind of emotional support they needed and why they might have hesitated to ask for help. Without identifying anyone, she read some of their answers – including from a girl who said her older sister had tried to commit suicide and then the girl did, too.

“Thank you for being brave enough to share that,” Garcia told the audience.

Later, she asked students to stand if they come from a home touched by divorce, addiction, abuse, anxiety and depression, or even suicide. Each time, dozens of students rose from their seats in the gym.

The point, Garcia explained, was not to embarrass anyone but to remind them how everybody is dealing with something. Then she asked students to turn to those next to them and say, “I see you. I’ve got you. You’re not alone,” and to hug or high five them. 

Over and over, she hammered home the message that it’s OK and honest to feel various ways … and that it’s important to ask others for help.

“The first time I went to counseling, I was determined not to cry,” Garcia said. “I was tough. … Now, my life is amazing. Things got better with my parents. The one into drugs is clean now and is my best friend. The one who went to jail is out now and is my best friend. … I’m not perfect, but I’m passionate because I don’t just hold it in anymore.”

Across the district, Metzger has put a premium on providing mental health services for students as well as staff since she came to Denair in 2018.

The district has ongoing relationships with the Center for Human Services, Hazel Health and La Familia, all of which provide various levels of access to counseling and other mental health services. There are full-time mental health clinicians on staff in addition to counselors assigned to each campus. In the fall of 2021 — after students and staff had returned to campus following many months of COVID-inspired distance learning — Metzger worked with Legacy Health Endowment of Turlock to secure the services of Stanford University psychiatrist Dr. Neha Chaudhary, who conducted a series of video-based discussions with students, staff and families around the topic of mental health over many months. 

During that time, Metzger also formed a Youth Mental Health Advisory Committee with about 15 students so she could hear directly from them about what they were feeling, thinking and hearing. Those conversations with students resulted in the formation this school year of the NAMI (National Alliance of Mental Illnesses) Club, another way for Denair students to bring weekly attention to mental health issues. 

And Monday, the district’s focus on mental health inspired an entire day devoted to the topic.

The goal, Metzger explained, was to let all students know that “if they need help, there are supports. There are caring adults in their lives.”

“They need to be comfortable reaching out for help,” she said. “That’s the only way to be the real you. That’s how to be a happy, successful adult.” 

Programs like Monday’s are important, Metzger said, “because they generate enthusiasm and reach a wide audience. … They also give us a common language with the kids that they can better understand and make it easier for some of them to ask for help.

“Many kids will also find a connection to another student that they didn’t even know they had.”

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