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Dallas ISD clinicians are dealing with layers of trauma in mental health support

Hector and Cheryl stand in front of a sign for Dallas ISD's Mental Health Services.
Jacob Wells
"It's a calling," said Hector Soto of his work with Dallas ISD's Mental Health Services department. "I've even gotten to the point where I've gotten dramatic: I've said it's a crusade. I do this because I need to do this."

Students and school staff have experienced traumatic events like the Uvalde shooting and finding a new normal after the COVID-19 pandemic in 2022.

Mental health clinicians at Dallas ISD have helped them process these events. Hector Soto and Cheryl Culberson both work in Mental Health Services for the district.

Soto is a clinician that works in the Eddie Bernice Johnson Youth & Family Center. Culberson is an alcohol and drug intervention coordinator with the Wilmer Hutchins Youth & Family Center. Both share what their work has been like in 2022, including what's been affecting students' mental health.

What students are dealing with in 2022

Cheryl Culberson: The different things that our students are dealing with right now [are] trauma, grief and loss. COVID, the pandemic, was a large part of it. That triggered anxiety, as well as the school shootings. There are layers of different things occurring in our students' lives.

Hector Soto: During our parents group yesterday, I asked what one word or phrase could sum [this year] up. The answers were incredible. I got complicated, stressful, anxiety. A lot of parents [said] their kids are normalizing a lot of the difficulties in the community and in the schools.

Jacob Wells
"It's a front row seat to the greatest show on earth," said Soto of his clinical work with Dallas ISD. "And this is an interactive show. You can jump in there and provide much-needed service to others, because there's no higher purpose."

Training staff to recognize mental health issues in students

Culberson: This year you and I participated in Mental Health First Aid training to help staff and give them resources so when a situation occurs, they have the knowledge to connect them with resources. It empowers them to be part of Mental Health Services, and we can pick up the ball from there.

Soto: I had the privilege several years ago of working on the school-based side. In my eight schools, every single one of them was a unique, individual, living, breathing organism that changed every single day. What worked on Monday didn't work on Friday.

I was working one time, and a bus driver said, "I think you might want to check in on that person, because he is not behaving like he normally behaves. He's normally cracking bad jokes, and today he's just angry." And turns out there was a story behind why he was behaving a certain way. So bravo to that school bus driver, still remember his name.

Culberson: And that goes right along with this year we participated in training and support of our bus drivers. Our presentation basically focused on optimistic thinking, and how they are the first line of our defense. They see the children in the morning time, and they drop them off in the afternoon. Being able to keep themselves healthy and connect with the youth that are on their routes, and being able to get them connected to resources when they see that red flag.

Jacob Wells
"With the mental health department, our goal is to provide that healthy resource so that they can learn how to cope and deal with life on life's terms," Culberson said.

How parents and caregivers can support students

Soto: You have to care about every second of every minute of every hour of every day of your child's life. I understand it's difficult, sometimes working three jobs, and not having weekends. But you are your child's best therapist. Nobody knows your children more than you. I think detachment is the problem we have right now. Ask questions and give them the opportunity to express themselves.

Culberson: And being present and active. That's the key thing with parents: being there to communicate openly to them. As long as you're engaging, you'll be able to guide them.

Soto also recommends the books Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters: 10 Secrets Every Father Should Know by Meg Meeker; Why Do They Act That Way?: A Survival Guide to the Adolescent Brain for You and Your Teen by David Walsh; and Lost at School: Why Our Kids with Behavioral Challenges Are Falling Through the Cracks and How We Can Help Them by Ross W. Greene.

Got a tip? Email Elena Rivera at You can follow Elena on Twitter @elenaiswriting.

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Elena Rivera is the health reporter at KERA. Before moving to Dallas, Elena covered health in Southern Colorado for KRCC and Colorado Public Radio. Her stories covered pandemic mental health support, rural community health access issues and vaccine equity across the region.