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Hands-On Therapy Helps Students Rebuild Self-Esteem After Trauma

Hannah Colton
KUNM Public Radio
Jane Williams is a clinical social worker at Gordon Bernell Charter School's Albuquerque Job Corps campus.

Whether it’s losing a family member, getting bullied, or witnessing violence, traumatic stress early in life can affect a person’s emotional health well into adulthood. KUNM visited a mental health worker at an alternative high school in Albuquerque to find out how some young adults are working to recover.

In Jane Williams’ cozy windowed office, there’s a bookcase full of plastic figurines and small objects.

"I have seashells, I have a soccer ball, I have different kinds of people," she says. Williams is an in-house clinical social worker at Gordon Bernell Charter School on the Albuquerque Job Corps campus.

"Fences are very important," she says, picking up a tiny wooden one, "because there’s a lot of times that we fence off things to keep ourselves safe."

Williams works with most students who come through here, whether it’s part of their individual special education services (their IEP), or in group art therapy.

This is a method called sand tray therapy. "I utilize that with the students who are pretty nonverbal, and just come in and kinda just go, 'oh, uh, everything’s fine,'" Williams explains. "So I have them build worlds in the tray."

She asks the students to pick any of the objects and arrange them in a tray of sand. The idea is that mental health issues are often shadowy and confusing, even to the person who’s experiencing them. Here, the students can get some of that internal stuff out into the physical world, where Williams can help them work through it.

"For example, one of the trays, a student put an airplane in it, because, she said, ‘I have to move. I have to get moving.’"

Many of Gordon Bernell’s students have dropped out of other high schools due to problems at home, serious mental illness, or incarceration. Williams says her task is often to help them build coping skills, self-awareness, and self-esteem.

"One of the kids did a world one day, and he had all those people in there," recalls Williams, "and I said to him, Well, which one are you? And he said, 'I’m this one.' And it’s just a round wooden piece – very plain, there’s really not much too it. But his explanation was, 'because I’m different.' So these are things that help me become aware of a kids’ inner life."

"Our mission is to work with them where they are in terms of their mental health, because we deal with so many students who have complex trauma," said Chris Pauls, the Dean of Students at this Gordon Bernell campus. "Mental health is a cornerstone of what we do, and I think it’s what separates our school, in a lot of ways, from a lot of other charter schools.

The work that Gordon Bernell students do in therapy often turns into beautiful writing or visual art, Pauls says. They’ll display some of it at a show coming up in May.


Support for KUNM’s Public Health New Mexico project comes from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the McCune Charitable Foundation, and from KUNM listeners like you.

Hannah served as news director at KUNM and reported on education, Albuquerque politics, and anything public health-related. She died in November 2020.
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