COVID-19 has changed the way we think about health, including mental health. Early reports suggest that young people have been especially affected emotionally and psychologically by the events of the past year. For educator, administrator, and Walden PhD in Education graduate Dr. Sabreen Mutawally, COVID was just one of many obstacles between her students faced in getting the care.
When students in her Greensboro, North Carolina, high school experience grief, trauma, or anxiety, Assistant Principal Dr. Sabreen Mutawally takes notice. “They say, ‘I’m good.’ But I can read their body language, I can see their facial expressions,” she says.
So when star student Nigel Moffitt-Shabazz looked worried, Mutawally noticed. His mother needed open-heart surgery during the same time his family was processing the deaths of his father and one of his grandmothers. “You could see the decline in Nigel,” says Mutawally, an educator of 12 years. “The joy was gone, the peace was not there. There was a lot on him.” She urged him to seek counseling as a positive outlet. After initially hesitating, Nigel eventually came around to the idea.
Regardless of what obstacles an individual is facing, successful mental health care has to start with an honest appraisal of current struggles, as well as a desire to get better.
But in high school environments, teenage boys are often hesitant to open up about their feelings. That can be especially true in communities facing resource scarcity, where the culture often connects emotional vulnerability with perceived weakness.
In her high school community, Mutawally first breaks down this stigma by providing a safe space for casual talk. Her students call her “Muta,” and her office is a haven.
“They all come into my office and hang out, to eat breakfast or spend their lunchtime,” Mutawally says. From there, she listens intently and observes behaviors closely. “I just listen to their conversations. Educators sometimes don’t take heed of the things that we’re actually hearing, what students are saying, and read between the lines.”
By committing to education as a holistic enterprise, dedicated to the improvement of the entire individual even outside of traditional classroom time, Mutawally has been able to help her students by identifying potential issues and offering positive solutions.
To be successful, she needs to do more than start a conversation. She needs to show her students a clear path forward.
As an immigrant with an early childhood marked by difficult adjustments, Mutawally has had to overcome her own challenges. She grew up in a single-parent home in a Black community facing structural injustice, and as an adult she escaped an emotionally abusive relationship.
To gain the trust of her students, she shares these experiences, along with the details of her own journey toward mental wellness. “I’ve shared my story before with adults, and I don’t mind sharing it with my kids,” she says. “I’m never ashamed of it.”
Mutawally says sharing her story not only helps her own healing process, but also builds her credibility when the conversation turns toward therapeutic interventions that could bring up complex emotions or deep-seated stigma. Once students see their beloved Muta as a living example of a successful outcome, their preconceived notions of mental health care tend to melt away.
“When you’re able to share that type of vulnerability and honesty, that’s when you start seeing those walls starting to fall down,” she says.
Of course, Mutawally recognizes that an honest conversation with a student about their mental wellbeing is only the first step toward a positive outcome. Engaging a broader support network is also critical, and to accomplish that, she relies on developing similarly candid relationships with parents.
“I need to have a relationship with parents where I can have those critical conversations to say, ‘Hey, just so you know, you might want to have a conversation with your child. I’m not going to go into details or tell you, but I just want you to listen,’ ” she says. Building that bridge establishes a two-way street. Sometimes, parents will initiate a conversation with a plea for help.
That was the case for one parent who called in tears about a disengaged child who had turned to substance use. “I had to have an intimate conversation about the value of counseling as an ongoing process,” Mutawally says. “Like, this is not something that you can just fix on your own, even though that’s what you want to do as a parent.”
The key to success in those talks? Mutawally says it’s “knowing what to say, but also how you say it, how you present it to them.”
As school went virtual during the pandemic, Mutawally’s office couldn’t be a safe space for informal conversation with students, or a vantage point for gauging their body language and facial expressions.
She had to create that space online.
As the National Honor Society advisor, Mutawally hosted informal virtual roundtables she called “view and chew.” Students were asked to make breakfast, turn on their cameras, and sit down to talk.
“They showed me what breakfast they made,” Mutawally says, “and from there we’d just talk about issues, from community food scarcity to police brutality and the murder of George Floyd.” The venue for venting and sharing soon explored far-ranging topics, not all serious, underscoring the positive impact of authentic talk and genuine connection.
On a recent spring day, Mutawally was able to catch up with a group of former students at a local park. Like any seasoned educator, she knew how to ensure attendance.
“I bought a ton of pizza,” she says.
What followed was a casual, lighthearted affair, and it let her see the impact she’s made. She caught up with Nigel again, who was still coming out of his shell after receiving counseling to help cope with the issues he faced while in Mutawally’s school. He’s now a college student with an easy smile, running for office in a student body organization.
Even after the stigma of mental health care has been broken down and a path toward positive coping mechanisms has been established, access is still an issue.
That’s why, earlier this year, Walden donated $15,000 through its Mobilize for Good initiative to the Yes Foundation—a mission-based organization dedicated to improving the lives of students by making resources more available.
As for Mutawally, who earned her PhD in Education with a specialization in Leadership, Policy, and Change from Walden in 2018, she says, “I just appreciate that Walden also sees the need to continuously create opportunities and broaden the number of students that can be served to help build those resources within the community.”
Thanks to a resource like Mutawally, the overall mental wellness of youth in one community in North Carolina is on a better path.