As a teenager, Sheyla Riaz faced depression and anxiety. But it wasn’t until a writing assignment for an English class that she was able to share her struggles — and that moment changed her life.
Riaz’s teacher connected her with a school counselor and that opened doors to other helpful resources in school and her community, she said. This experience inspired her to pursue a career as a school social worker. Today, she’s the social work director for KIPP NJ schools.
“We spend a good chunk of our lives in a school setting, and so it is imperative that schools be equipped and resourced to support not just with math and English language arts, but with everything else that comes with being a kid and teenager,” Riaz told Chalkbeat.
She counts herself lucky, she added, to have had access to school-based and community mental health resources as a child. Now, she advocates for supporting students across Newark’s 14 KIPP charter schools, where she manages mental health programming.
Riaz recently spoke to Chalkbeat about her work overseeing 32 school social workers, how her team confronts the stigma around mental health, and the advice she gives to students coping with difficult times.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What led you to the field of social work?
From a young age, I was a helper and learned the value of listening to others when it came to figuring out what to help with. My mother would share stories about her upbringing, and I would sit there for hours just listening to these experiences and taking in her learnings and wisdom. It was fascinating. The drive toward the mental health field really took shape in middle and high school when I experienced my own struggles with depression and anxiety. I was fortunate to be surrounded by a supportive village that connected me with social workers and resources that helped me overcome those difficult times. Now, I get to be part of supportive villages that are helping kids and families overcome their difficult times.
What does a typical day look like for you? What do you look forward to the most?
My days are filled with team and community meetings, data review, progress monitoring, and program planning — very different from the days of direct work with students but just as rewarding. I meet with social workers across our 14 K-12 schools, and we talk through items such as implementation, efficacy, and progress of student support plans. We assess data to determine the most appropriate counseling interventions, we celebrate wins, we check in on community and self-care, we manage crises, we plan for school-wide events centering mental health, and the list goes on. Connecting with a social worker or community partner and experiencing their joy when sharing about something amazing that a student accomplished is always the highlight of my day. Good and happy news always fills the tank!
Among those you help, what issues have you seen emerge during the pandemic?
We were noticing spikes in depression, anxiety, drug use, and gang involvement pre-pandemic but those numbers have jumped significantly in the last two years. There are so many stressors impacting our families that stem from systems of oppression, and these play out in the classroom. Our young people are experiencing anxiety, depression, grief, and trauma; and when there is isolation, brought by the pandemic, and limited resources, brought by inadequate systems, they sometimes turn to things like self-medication or getting involved in dangerous situations. Now that our schools are fully open, we are bringing kids back in with urgency and connecting them and their families to resources and supports that will alleviate some of those stressors. We are focused on building relationships and offering healing spaces so that kids can be kids again.
How does your team confront the stigma around mental health with the families in your schools?
You know, I am so proud of this generation of kids because they are incredible and open and forward-thinking. They are the ones that push for mental health advocacy, and they join us in talking about mental health to parents and older generations! We all have mental health, and that is the constant message: We do not shy away from talking about the whole person. When we have a parent meeting, for example, we are talking about academics and social and emotional learning. When we have team meetings, we encourage each other to notice and name feelings. When we start the school day, we encourage students to check in with themselves and identify how they are showing up in the classroom. We confront the stigma by normalizing mental health in every interaction and with every stakeholder.
What advice have you offered students as they cope with difficult times, whether it be grief or trauma?
I wouldn’t necessarily call it advice but rather an encouraged offering of a safe and welcoming space to talk about their feelings, to talk about their worries, to talk about the things that scare them, and to simply say the things that ruminate in their minds — to say them out loud in a space that will not judge and in a space that is sturdy enough to hold these big feelings so that students do not need to carry them alone. I encourage students to connect with the helpers, with their families, with their peers, and with their community.
Tell us about your own experience with school and how it affects your work today.
I shared earlier about my own mental health struggles — home and school support was key in my growth and ability to overcome those. I remember writing about my struggles in an English project; that was the catalyst to getting connected to the school counselor who then connected me to the community resources that helped me learn and apply the coping skills I needed at that moment. We spend a good chunk of our lives in a school setting, so it is imperative that schools be equipped and resourced to support not just with math and English language arts, but with everything else that comes with being a kid and teenager. I was lucky to have access to that support. Today I push to ensure that every student in my district has access to that same support.
You spend your days trying to help others. How do you wind down after a stressful day?
This pandemic has pushed me to really take note of how I take care of myself. These days, winding down is turning off the work computer, silencing email notifications, yoga, and being fully present with my two kids. Perhaps we are playing a game of UNO — or perhaps they are playing a game of UNO, while I nap. Ha! Hashtag, winning.
Catherine Carrera is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Newark, covering the city’s K-12 schools with a focus on English language learners. Contact Catherine at email@example.com.