People who work in schools have a unique and lasting effect on children; we all remember at least one person who was there for us, who made the school a better place and seemed to make us better, too. For a number of students in New York, that person is Angela Renz, a school social worker. Ms. Renz was honored as the Local Hero at our inaugural Change Maker Awards in 2015. She was a natural fit because for decades she’s been a hero for at risk children in New York.
Can you describe the work you do?
I am a social worker on a school assessment team. I work with a school psychologist and a family associate, and the team works with the school community and parents to determine how to help children. I meet with parents and do a social history, medical history and developmental history to get a sense of the child and his or her environment, and the parent’s thoughts on the child’s needs. I also do individual counseling and some group counseling, working with children to help identify their challenges, to create a level of self-awareness and to develop healthy coping strategies.
How is the education field different than others you’ve worked in?
I’ve had the blessing to work in many different capacities as a social worker. About 15 years ago I came into the school system and it’s very exciting. The setting is high energy and you really feel like you’re playing an important role in molding children and helping them to prepare for the world out there.
It’s a very hopeful setting. I was in health care for many years, and you had a lot of illness that is untreatable. But when you are working with youth there is an element of the future. What you say to a student today may not get an immediate reaction or produce a change of behavior, but there’s always that hope. Down the road he might think, “Hey, Ms. Renz said something to me about that once.” I tell children that it’s not just about what you’re doing right now, but how it’s going to impact your future. Having hope and realizing that life is not just right now is a very important thing for kids to learn.
What’s the most gratifying part of your work?
I’ve had the pleasure of watching some children go from kindergarten through eighth grade, and they’ll stop by my office and tell me about some family situation that we talked about years ago. That’s when I feel like, “Wow, we really made a difference.” Yes, it was three or four years ago when we were in that group, when we worked together and discussed all these issues and now you can see how they processed that information and how they’ve worked on coping strategies they need to move forward and to be happy.
Why is mental health important for kids?
If we don’t address mental health and learning issues at an early age, it becomes counterproductive for the children and for society. We need to do whatever we can to prevent suicide, substance abuse and other maladaptive behaviors. And if we can address these issues in childhood we have a better chance for a happier and healthier adult. I think it is really critical that we provide the mental health services that are necessary when they are necessary. I do it directly through my work with children.
The first thing I do is try to develop a trusting relationship and a safe place where kids can go and talk that’s confidential. If a student is in danger of hurting themselves or of being hurt, you need to get immediate assistance, but for some children it’s just a matter of having a sounding board, having a non-judgmental person that they can talk to in a relaxed setting and feel like their voice is heard.
Do you ever get frustrated?
I really hate when everything you can do is not enough, and that is a reality. Sometimes you connect a child with all the services out there, but despite our best efforts and a strong supportive home life, everything you can do is just not enough. I also think that we also as a society need to really take a closer look at the affordability, accessibility and availability of mental health services for children. There are very hardworking people out there who have health insurance that does not cover mental health for their children. And that is a significant problem.
Do you have a personal connection to mental health in school?
My dad died very suddenly and unexpectedly when I was in high school. I was about 17. It was a big shock and a very big adjustment for us, my sister and I, my mother and our immediate family. I was in a very supportive high school with a great family. Having that support at school and certainly having my family’s support really made a difference in being able to accept the circumstances and move forward. I think that to this day I am reminded that life happens and children really need to have the support that they need to deal with it and to adjust to how life changes.
Who helped you from the school?
The guidance counselors were very helpful. And I think that for students who are dealing with a major life event that is very challenging, it is very important to have that kind of support. Not only for them but for their parents. One student I worked with lost his father very suddenly, and the classroom teacher and I went to the home and helped his mom tell him. It was amazing. I related to that situation, and although he was much younger than I was when it happened I could certainly feel what he was feeling.
Do you talk about your experience with your students?
There are times when it is appropriate. So in the course of a clinical conversation, if it is appropriate, if I feel like it is going to assist the child, I may share that information.
How does it feel to be successful with a kid?
It is just so wonderful to see a smile on a child’s face, to get a thank you note from the child, from the parent. I come from the generation where we were going to change society. It was going to be a better, greater world. And I still think that we have to have that sense that we can make a difference. So when you see that smile, that accomplishment, it’s just a wonderful thing.
What are some issues you see in children’s mental health?
I certainly think that as an advocate for children’s mental health, we need to work on public perception, on the stigma of mental health disorders being an insurmountable problem. Mental health problems are treatable and manageable with compassion and support, and I think that is the message that we need to get out there. I think that we as a society have come a long way, certainly in the course of my career. However there are still many, many areas that we need to work on, including developing the research. And we as a group of mental health providers need to generate more awareness, more acceptance of mental health issues today. Not in the future; today. We need to start right now to make it happen. We’ve seen a lot of tragedy in schools and in society in general, and we need to address these problems.
What are the big challenges in society today for kids?
The technology we have today is a wonderful gift, but it is a totally different form of communication than we are used to. We see children using it in ways that are inappropriate and can really be damaging. We see angry rants and inappropriate conversations that can be really hurtful and cruel and can cause children to become very depressed. Children share each other’s passwords so you can’t really be sure who wrote what to whom. Provocative pictures, cyber bullying — it’s all out there. It’s great to be able to give our children phones, but there is an added responsibility for parents, for school professionals and for society to monitor what they are doing with those phones.
Anything from the heart you want to tell us?
It is very clear to me that we do have a society that cares and that wants to help. But we all need to work together to buoy our children, to create a safety net. Children are our future. Children need the opportunity to grow up in a healthy and happy environment to have the support that they need to grow. It’s so important for the future of society to really invest in our children.