Tomorrow I go back to work, after two weeks off for winter break.
I’m a high school counselor – 9th grade in an urban public school. We are 85% Free/Reduced lunch, high gang participation. Many of our students have basic needs unmet, and are usually worried more about eating and surviving, than school. I am the only counselor for over 700 students. I don’t dread my job, but so many of the issues that come with it completely overwhelm me, and I wish I could work at Home Depot instead. My duties require my main concern be scheduling and getting kids graduated, that is around 90% of my job. My main concern is the students – social, family, emotional well-being. In nine years of counseling I have seen funny, sad, delightful, inspiring, hopeless, pitiful, and infuriating situations. I don’t have to watch the news, read articles, or be able to quote statistics to know we are severely failing kids, and ultimately, everyone.
A former student, Edgar, is one of the common, and hard mental health issues I have dealt with. I don’t remember if Edgar was initially referred by a teacher or his mom. Edgar was 16, old for the 9th grade, so at some point he was held back in school. When I called him to my office, he hovered in the doorway, uncertain if he should come in. His large body filled the space, long brown hair covered his face, and his head was bent down. I asked him to come in, he sat uncomfortably across the desk from me, left his backpack on, seldom looked at me, and spoke softly.
It surprised me how honest he was with me. Edgar had been in inpatient psychiatric care three times, is a cutter, and has attempted suicide. He isn’t allowed to be alone, so when he gets off the bus from school his 7th grade sister is there to walk him home, and when they get home she checks him for cuts. He spends the most of his evening in his bedroom, which has the door removed. When his mom gets home from work, she again checks him for cuts. He is under constant monitoring. Sadly, he still believes his family doesn’t care about him.
Throughout the 1st semester I would check in with Edgar, and meet with his mom and sister every now and then. In August he seemed to be stable, but as the semester went on, he went down. The Friday before Thanksgiving Edgar’s mom told me he was cutting again, he confirmed he was also thinking about suicide. He felt like he should be in the hospital again, but his mom couldn’t afford it, Medicaid wouldn’t cover it again. Edgar made it through. He really liked our social worker, Paul, so continued to check in with him.
At some point after spring break Edgar was in the office for another reason. I asked to talk to him, I just wanted to check in for a second, as he was finishing up his first year of high school. Edgar was uncomfortable, he didn’t want to sit down. Edgar hovered over my desk, looked at me through strands of hair, and mumbled something I wasn’t sure, and hoped I hadn’t, heard correctly. He’s so quiet.
I said, “I’m sorry, Edgar, what is it you said?”
“I think about dismembering people.”
“You think about dismembering people. Ok. Is this a thought that on occasion pops into your head, something that you may have seen on TV, or is it more specific?”
“I imagine it, all of the time.”
“Do you imagine this about all people, or specific people you know or encounter?
Keeping eye contact, which is rare, he replied, “I think about dismembering everyone I know. Except for Ms. Ortega (my secretary) and my English teacher.”
I thought, What? Shit! You think about dismembering me? Oh, fuck!
But I said, “OK, we need to call your mom, you need to go to the hospital. Do you think that is a good plan for you?”