Back to Episode # 2

Tue, 7/13 1:23PM • 22:49

students, mental health, mental health crises, life, classroom, push, folks, college, counseling, today, family, disease, educator, year, thoughtful, minnesota, build, faced, step, high school


Liz Bolsoni, Bryan Contreras, Intro

Intro  00:00
Life After Now.

Liz Bolsoni  00:07
Hello, and welcome to the Life After now podcast. I'm your host Liz Bolsoni. I'm a Ncommunication studies major at St. Kate's. In St. Paul, Minnesota. This podcast is a place for young people like you to gather information about education, and think about what it means for your life after now. You'll be able to connect with inspirational guests who have firsthand experience and expertise surrounding education in Minnesota. So today, I want to introduce Bryan Contreras. Brian is the Vice President at, a nonprofit that provides resources and assistance to millions of students and their families nationwide. He's here today to talk to our listeners about the importance of mental health. Bryan, thank you so much for joining me today.

Bryan Contreras  00:51
Liz. Thanks for inviting and so happy to be here.

Liz Bolsoni  00:55
I'm excited to have you too. So do you want to give us a little bit of a personal introduction to yourself and your life I guess before now?

Bryan Contreras  01:03
Absolutely. Well, greetings to all the students in Minnesota. I'm based in Houston, Texas, on the Gulf Coast. I am a native Houstonian, and a, I guess you'd call me a lifer in terms of education. I've spent the last 20 years college counseling, career advising and running programs for students here in the Greater Houston area. And now at myOptions working with schools and students across the country as they think about life after high school. Prior to my, my career in education, [I was a] first generation Mexican American student that had an amazing opportunity to go to a boarding school in New Hampshire. I was a scholarship kid that was recruited to go and just push myself academically. And so I come from a family of folks who have been migrant workers and working class and we all through education have found our success in different careers and college degrees. So I have, I have a lot to share with with the students and the families about what it means to push through and getting those degrees.

Liz Bolsoni  02:08
Awesome. And we also have a fun icebreaker to get to know you a little bit more. So I wanted to ask if you were going to give your high school self, high school Bryan, a piece of advice or some words of affirmation, what would you say?

Bryan Contreras  02:20
Don't miss that last Stevie Ray Vaughan concert. I was a huge, huge, huge blues enthusiast when I was in high school. And I chose not to go see Stevie Ray Vaughan, my last, my last year prior to going back to Exeter and Stevie lost his life in a helicopter crash in 1990. And so, you know, life is short, take those risks, do those, make those decisions and do those things that you want to do. Don't keep punting them or push them off. So that's a fun way of me saying take those risks and go after those things and seize that day.

Liz Bolsoni  02:56
Yeah, that's great advice. So today's topic for this episode is about mental health, which is a focus of your work. Can you tell us about why you chose that as a focus what it means to you? And what is the importance of mental health to you?

Bryan Contreras  03:12
Yeah, so I'll start at a really high level. Again, I'll start on a personal note, and then I'll make the connection to what it's meant to me, both as a student, a student of color, and as an educator, and then as an educator of color. I think it's important for me in my college counseling to bring both my personal story, my personal truths into the work in terms of how I serve students with college and career advising. So when it comes to mental wellness, or mental health, I have a family who has been stricken with the disease of bipolar and schizophrenia, depression, anxiety. And it's something that has been a part of my truth as a, as a, a nephew to my aunt's and my uncles, and as a son to a father and a mother that both had these diseases, and led to substance abuse. My, both my parents were heroin addicts, and I, I've seen what, what those, what that can do to me personally and also to the family. And so as I think about the work that I needed to put in to get through the academics and, and to the place where I am now, you can't just remove the mental health aspect from this academic experience or our journeys, right, to receive those, to get our degrees. And so I've taken those learnings and I, and I help my students, or I help my, my team as they build programs to serve students to really be be more considerate of where students are in terms of their mental wellness or mental health. Especially in a year like we're coming out of with all the trauma, and all of the experiences, and being disconnected. There's a lot to be said about how you talk about what you want to do in a year or five years in your, in your career, which is what I do the college and career counseling. We have to help students really unpack that and understand how do they manage their stress? How do they manage their anxiety? How do the, how do they come to terms with the world around them in their community, to say, "Hey, this is my truth. This is where I fit into this ecosystem. And this is what I'm going to contribute and get out of my college experience. But also, how can you help support me through that journey. So that's really, why it's so near and dear to my heart is the personal journey." But I also know what it means for students as they plan for life after high school and life after college.

Liz Bolsoni  05:44
You know, as you're saying, students are expressing stress, anxiety and fatigue after a really difficult year, you know, for example, broadcast instances of police violence within the past year, a worldwide pandemic, and distance learning just to name a few. So what do you suggest to students in order to prioritize and balance their mental health on top of or with school?

Bryan Contreras  06:09
Well I think there's, there's a handful of things and I don't want to go down this five, five or six, you know, item checklist to distress and, you know, freak everybody out even more, but I think there's some healthy things that we all should be thoughtful about doing. And I do this with my own children personally. But I also do this with my students, when I'm in a school or working with with students and advising them. The, the opportunity for us just to slow down. And what I mean by that is low technology. We spend so many hours on our cell phones or on our devices, laptops, iPads, whatever that may be. And really just having to just step away from all the media, and all the information that's getting pushed through all the devices -- we have our eyes on our phones, I mean, throughout the day, whether it's watching the news, watching videos, watching something through YouTube, our social media channels. That in itself can really, really exhaust the brain. And the brain really needs to have that opportunity to really slow down and just be at peace for a bit, right, like, take a walk, and get away from the technology. So I would say that just really monitoring and managing your technology, that is one easy thing you can control. Second thing, and I've had to really adopt this over the past couple of years, and especially this past year, and that is really exercise. And I know it sounds kind of corny, but man, a walk or a run or, you know, your aerobics or whatever you're doing the yoga, those things can really help all the chemicals in the brain naturally kind of sedate, and slow you down and give you the energy you need to be ready for the next day. And so two things: you know, just low technology, get off your devices; and build a walking exercise. You don't even need to be a power weightlifter, just go for a nice 45 minute walk with a friend or with family. That in itself will help you.

Liz Bolsoni  08:06
That's great. I don't know if any of y'all listening can relate but COVID man, those walks every day, I kind of miss it. You know, I got to spend time with my family in a way that I hadn't when I was at school. And it also is exercise, fresh air. You know, that's a great point. I love that. Those are great tips. Do you have any specific tools to monitor our mental health, you know, before it gets to a bad point?

Bryan Contreras  08:29
Yeah, I think that, you know, I don't know if I'd call them a tool. But I would say just things that you can build into your your day-to-day, week-to-week routines. And some folks will use you know, obviously there are these apps now that exist, right, the calm app and the meditate app and those those types of apps that can help you really slow down or just have that moment where you're checking, doing a quick self check. But really watching, watching yourself. Like are you, are you noticing your sleeping patterns or patterns? Are they off? Are they are they? Are you sleeping more sleeping less? Is it different than what you've you've noticed in the past? Are you, are you irritable? Are you, are you short to being agitated? Like really, really kind of self-monitor and do that self-awareness, because many times we get so busy, we just fail to stop and just say there's something going on with me, I need to do a little less or I need to I need to build in this time to really, you know, meditate or go for that walk we were just talking about. So some time during your day, you need to build that in to say, whether it's in the morning or in the evening or midday, "Let me step back and kind of do a pulse check." And I don't think that we do that enough. I certainly didn't do it as a young adult. And I had to learn to do that as a, as a, as someone who's become very busy over the past, you know, 15, 20 years with the work. And that's really just stepping away from all the Zoom calls, all the media, and just kind of taking a 15 minute, let me just sit and think okay, "hHw am I Feeling, why am I feeling stressed? And what's different about today or this week that I didn't experience last week." So some type of a self check and just kind of, you know, there's so many little self check, checklists online where you can just say, I know it sounds corny, but just stop and pause and ask yourself, "Self, how are you doing?" And "Why are you so tired?" Or "Why are you irritable?" Or "Why is it that you're, you're, you're not wanting to hang out with friends as much as you want, you did before?" So those little things, those are signals to you that something's not, not well or not right with your mental health?

Liz Bolsoni  10:35
Great, yeah. Now that we know how to check in with ourselves a little bit, can you talk about approaching or, you know, identifying and approaching peers and loved ones who are suffering mentally and who are maybe in distress,

Bryan Contreras  10:49
Mental health and mental, mental health diseases are extremely complicated. It's not always easily identified through you know, if you're a diabetic, you can take a blood test and you know that you have high sugar, low sugar. If you're if you have high cholesterol, blood tests can identify that as well. But with mental health and the mental health diseases, is just first understand that it's sophisticated, it's complicated, and it is a disease. It's not something that someone has brought upon themselves because of something they're doing. It',s it's not, it's not something that's happening in an environment where they're, they're self inflicting. This, this is, this is natural to them, this is their biology. And so understanding that this is a medical disease that is, that is afflicting your loved one, or it might be afflicting you. So that's the first step. The second thing is, you have to be really thoughtful, if you understand that, you have to be really thoughtful and asking the person you care about what, what it is that they're experiencing, and just really listening and being empathetic, and then point them to an expert, or someone who can really help them kind of break down or distill what's going on with their mind or with their body because of the mental, the mental health or the mental, mental health disease. And so, for me, again, personally, I had to learn how to really have conversations with my family, and my parents, during those times where they were, you know, going through one of what we would call an episode. You know, they're there, they're in a moment of mania, they're in a moment of depression, they're in a moment of, of the bipolar challenges of the anxiety. And just really listening, and then helping them to seek out the help they need, and being encouraging to them to say, "You know, this is beyond your control, I'm here to care for you, I'm here to help you." But don't try to, don't try to provide the solution to them on your own. There's a team that really needs to kind of help them understand that and work through that. But the key is paying attention to the signals. And you know, there are there are some basic signals, you know, the sleep patterns, the irritability, most times folks will kind of, kind of just disappear, right? Like you're used to seeing them day-to-day, week-to-week. And if you don't see them, their routines change, potentially, there's something that's going on if they've had a history of some type of a mental, a mental health disease. And so, you know, that's there's a lot to be said about how you, how you approach and how you care, but just paying attention and being caring, and empathetic is step one.

Liz Bolsoni  13:23
Yeah, great. Now we know you know a little bit about the healthy self, and I want to move on to a healthy classroom. How do you define a safe and a healthy classroom? And how do we participate in creating that?

Bryan Contreras  13:36
I think the one of the most important things that I've learned over the years is students have their own, their own truths, and what they bring into the classroom is their truth. And not everyone obviously, will have the same experience. And so being really careful as an educator, to not generalize, to not to not minimize, and to certainly allow for students to have their voice and their truth in what it is you're trying to deliver to them. And for me, it was college and career advising. My approach was always to have the student really own the process. And so I would start by sharing with them, "You have assets. You have social capital that you bring to this conversation. Do not let anyone ever tell you that you're coming in, behind in any of this or you're coming at this from a deficit. You have you, have a lot to add to any classroom to any college campus to any high school classroom, whatever that classroom may be." And empowering the student to be able to kind of take this the lessons, or the the advisory lesson, or just this process in this journey of planning for college, and to own it. Like this is your process to own and this is how you should shape that path. And so that to me was was huge for all my students I needed to build that that genuine, safe space in a classroom that they feel comfortable in sharing, they feel comfortable asking questions, and they really were the owners of that particular classroom, I was just there to help moderate and drive. Right. That's it, it shouldn't be me driving it.

Liz Bolsoni  15:11
So you know, if you could share a little bit about how you personally address your own mental health or a mental health crisis, what do you have to say about your personal experience?

Bryan Contreras  15:23
so I'll use a very specific experience to really drive home this point for, for all those that will listen in. About five years ago, my family was -- we went through a major tragedy, and we suffered. It was a triple murder in my family. And I was about, I would have been 40, 44 at the time. So I'm an adult. I'm someone who should be able to push through how I felt, I should be able to push through, and and help my my personal family push through my nuclear family push through. And I'll tell you, that's not something that, that I would wish upon anyone, right. That's, those are, that's a tragedy, and it's very traumatizing. And what it really brought to life for me was, you know, we have, we have our minds. We have our physiological body. We have the physical, the mind, the spiritual. It really helped me think about this, the word balance. And the way I was able to bounce back or push through was balancing. I had to really be thoughtful about doing what I just talked about earlier, slowing down, minimizing all the things that I had ongoing in my life. I had to build an exercise to kind of help with the breathing and the meditation. I had to build in, for me, it was my faith. So the spiritual side, and for some folks that might be meditation. I had to build a really strong support system of folks around me: friends, friends through church, friends through work, friends that I knew when I, I knew them since childhood. And then the last piece was, there are just some things that are out of your control, and you have to be okay with that. You kind of need to give that away. And so it was a five part kind of like balancing act that I needed to do to really help get through day-to-day. And over time, it became more natural. It came, it became less and less of me thinking about that on a daily basis, then it became a weekly basis, and then it became natural for me to really just breathe again, and experience life on the other side of a tragedy. So not an easy, not an easy thing to do. Let me just share, like that, those are all very, very difficult things to do. But I needed to do all five of those to really make sure that I push through to be my best self, so I could be my best self or my own -- my children, my family and the students that I was serving.

Liz Bolsoni  17:44
Thank you. Yeah, we're really grateful for, for sharing your story. And how, you know, you said you help your team help students in mental health crises. How do you train people or work with adults to help students who are going through mental health crises?

Bryan Contreras  18:02
Yeah, so a couple of things we, you know, when I was working directly with students in the schools here in the Greater Houston area, we had a, again, as I explained my own personal tragedies, we had students that were going through their own tragedies as well with their families and things that they were experiencing. And so we began to notice that, okay, if we're really going to care about the students life after high school, we need to help them address their, the challenges that they're faced with. That also meant my team needed to step back and look in the mirror and ask themselves, "How are you doing?" And so we did a couple of things. We actually, we partnered with a, with a local organization here in the Houston area that provided free counseling for, for teachers and educators. And so just developing a relationship and a, and an alliance with a, with a local organization to help teachers and educators really, again, step back, slow down and have those discussions with folks that are not in the schools with them, talking to you know, someone who is objective. It helped the team really have those moments to ask questions about themselves. But we also were given frameworks of how to deal with students who have who have had trauma in their life. And that's one of the things that I think as, as school counselors or as as college counselors, you start to see more, more and more of that as we think about the social and emotional learning of students. We're starting to ask the question, where does a trauma, you know trauma based counseling model fit into the the overall school counseling model? Because your students are going through a lot and you just have to be prepared and ready to help them ask the right questions of themselves and think about how do you how do you bring in your experience into this school counseling environment which, or a school environment, in which may not understand your truth or your background.

Liz Bolsoni  19:59
So as we talked about earlier, students today are facing a lot of challenges, and especially in our community in Minnesota, have, have gone through a lot this past year. So what advice or parting words do you have as they look forward to their futures?

Bryan Contreras  20:13
I would encourage students -- I would say young adults, you guys are young adults.  You're the emerging leaders for the 21st century. You're going to help us solve some of these challenges that we're facing at the moment. And, you know, we've created some, some headaches for ourselves to this point. So you all as, as young leaders and emerging leaders in the 21st century, my hope is that you're, you all are taking great notes in terms of how my generation and the generations before me may have missed opportunities to have open communication, open dialogue, healthy discourse. And thinking about how do we really work more collaboratively in solving the the issues we're faced with. And that can be, you name it, from climate change, economy, the race relations we face here in the United States, how we, how we are more accepting of and more inclusive of different peoples and folks who have different, you know, different backgrounds. And I will just tell you all, continue to ask those, those critical questions of yourself, and of the adults in your lives. Because we can always get better, there is no doubt that we have a lot of room to grow. And just be true to yourself. Have, take your truth. And make sure you you anchor anchor yourself to your truth, your personal truth, because you have a voice, and you have assets you bring to these challenges we're all faced with in this world.

Liz Bolsoni  21:42
Thank you. I really appreciate it. Our conversation today. Thanks so much for sharing with our listeners about how to be involved in making sure that they are as well as they can be and taking care of themselves and those around them to live their best lives. So I appreciate your time today.

Bryan Contreras  22:00
Thank you, Liz.

Liz Bolsoni  22:01
I also want to give a quick shout out to our listeners. Thank you so much for spending some time with us today. This podcast was brought to you by the Minnesota Office of Higher Education. And we encourage you to dig into the resources mentioned in this episode, which you can find in the show notes at our website Don't forget to follow this podcasts on Apple, Spotify, Google Play or wherever you listen to your podcasts, so that you don't miss any future episodes. Until next time, everyone. I'm Liz Bolsoni. Stay well, stay hopeful, and stay ready because you all are the future.

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