Support When it Matters Most

by Alison Krupnick

At a time when anxiety and depression are skyrocketing among youth, there’s greater awareness about the need to focus on their mental health.

Wellness and mental health support are cornerstones of the Rainier Scholars holistic program of support. Recently, the Seattle-based Mental Health team of Roy Fisher, Kathryn Pienta and new team member Quianna Koonce, a Rainier Scholars Cohort 2 alum, described how this work has evolved over the years, including during the pandemic.

Focus on the Individual

“In the early years of Rainier Scholars, the Mental Health team had a strong focus on helping scholars navigate academic challenges and show up as their best selves at school,” says Roy Fisher, Rainier Scholars child and family therapist. “We’ve shifted that approach to recognize our scholars’ unique identities and how that affects how they show up academically. We view them as individuals who are doing this hard academic work and we focus on the scholar, rather than the rigorous journey they are on.”

“We moved from a stress management model to helping our scholars develop and understand their identities and how that impacts school, as well as other aspects of their lives,” adds Pienta.

Building on the foundation of support that begins in the 14-month Academic Enrichment Phase (AEP), the Mental Health team meets weekly with Liz Sadler, director of Academic Counseling, and also keeps in close touch with the team of Academic Counselors, who have made mental health a priority in their regular check-ins with scholars. New team member Quianna Koonce will serve as a dedicated resource for AEP scholars and families, building early rapport and enabling Fisher and Pienta to expand their support for older scholars.

Finding Creative Connections

“Mental health is just getting to a place where it’s more widely accepted,” says Koonce. “There’s still a stigma among Black people. Because I am a Rainier Scholars alum, I bring an extra level of connection. Scholars and families will know that I made this same 12-year commitment. I did it, I completed it. Yes, it’s hard, but I can show them that it’s worth it. The kids understand that I’m not just telling them to do their homework because I am an adult. I understand the weight it holds. I am living the benefits of the skills and network I gained from Rainier Scholars, and I am here to help them succeed.”

When COVID touched Rainier Scholars, the Mental Health team had to find new ways to connect with scholars.  “In the early days of the pandemic we had to get creative in helping kids identify things they could do to help themselves feel good, says Pienta. “Now, there is still pandemic anxiety. We help them identify the things they have control over and ways they can keep themselves safe.”

“Connecting virtually is different than connecting in person,” says Fisher. “I wasn’t originally a fan of telehealth, but it works for a lot of people. There are fewer barriers to access support.  I can see this being a large portion of the way we work moving forward.”

“We’re busier than we’ve ever been,” adds Pienta.

The Power of “Positive Psychology”

As Rainier Scholars-Tacoma gets ready to welcome its first cohort this summer, mental health is top of mind. Dr. Danny Campa will serve as RS-Tacoma’s Director of Wellness. He’s been associated with Rainier Scholars since 2010 and appreciates the opportunity to build on Seattle’s successful mental health model, adapting it to meet the needs of Tacoma scholars and families. A first step will be building awareness of the program.

“People in Tacoma don’t know us yet,” says Campa. “They know we are doing something good; they’re just not sure what that is.” Starting from scratch in a new community allows the possibility of innovation. Campa wants to set the stage for Rainier Scholars to become a resource, even for families who are not part of the formal program.

Like Fisher, Campa sees the benefits of virtual engagement when it comes to serving clients. “Nothing beats the convenience and I appreciate the flexibility,” he says.

Campa describes himself as a “positive psychologist,” preferring to look at the nexus of distress, protection and resilience and focus on building upon existing strengths, a philosophy that is shared by the Seattle team. “My goal is to flood kids with encouragement. I want to keep tapping into strengths, helping them thrive and flourish,” he says.

“At its core, mental health support is about building relationships,” says Fisher. “It’s about creating a context of safety, respect and trust that allows people to share those vulnerable things they are dealing with and know that we will do our best to support them without judgment.”

“Mental health support is just support,” says Pienta. “We are here to help students identify what they can do to make their life feel better.”