Stepping Out of the Darkness: Part 2
Stepping Out of the Darkness is a three-part series on mental health in medicine, in education, and in communities. As mental and behavioral health is a rising concern among University of North Dakota students, staff and alumni, we are bringing to light stories and resources for more informed conversations and understanding.
"Belonging is about connection. We help them make connections, we help them through tough times, and we give them a place to belong.”
Geoff Gaukler, ’94, ’10; Mental Health Coordinator, Grand Forks Public Schools
Misan (in blue), a refugee from Nepal and part of Red River’s EL program, was the lead in a spring play put on by the Global Friends Coalition Summer Performing Arts group. His character was on a mission to discover the meaning of the word “belonging.” Misan defines it as getting help, helping others and trying new things.
“Here, it doesn’t matter your race or your last name. People here are nice and they help you. We know each other. We say we’re like a family,” Misan said.
Building resiliency from trauma
Ivona Todorovic, ’03, ’05, runs the Red River EL program and accompanied the group at Turtle River. She understands what these students are going through.
In 1995, Ivona arrived in Grand Forks after fleeing her home country of Bosnia during the war. With a teaching background, she began working in the GFPS district with EL students. Now with her master’s degree, Ivona is a part-time instructor for Teaching & Leadership in the UND College of Education & Human Development (CEHD).
Ivona explains that tradition, family expectations and stigma around mental health all contribute to the added pressure EL students face while learning another language and culture. “These kids often come from cultures where you just don’t talk about these things,” she explained. “Parents act out of fear…. They use the mantra, ‘be strong, be brave’ because that’s what we’ve had to survive on.”
The latest numbers show that, while the Grand Forks region grew only 2% between 2010 and 2015, the immigrant population grew 27.6%, with refugees making up one-tenth of that population. Compared to their American-born peers, refugee children experience a higher number of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), or traumatic experiences that can affect psychological and physical health later in life.
Research shows that the best way to counter the effects of ACEs is to build resiliency through things like trauma-informed care and adult support. The EL team applies these principles by creating space to work through the trauma, uncover their triggers and hear their heartwrenching stories: Some were ripped away from family members, others saw friends killed in front of them. Most were on the run for their lives.
“In African culture, they say, ‘I cry inward,’” Ivona explained. But after these efforts, “the guard comes down and the tears fall.”
UND links classrooms to mental health services
Dr. Cindy Juntunen, ’87, is Dean of the CEHD. Her extensive portfolio centers around mental health, reducing stigma and addiction treatment and prevention.
Under her leadership, the CEHD uses a multidisciplinary approach within its education system. Counseling, counseling psychology and public health programs all fall under the college, “so the intentional linkage here between education and mental health is pretty unique,” Dr. Juntunen said. The Northern Prairie Community Clinic (NPCC) located in UND’s Columbia Hall is one example.
Funded by a Behavioral Health Workforce Education and Training grant, NPCC brings students from multiple CEHD departments and colleges together to provide behavioral health and speech-language pathology services to communities, schools, and clinics.
“Behavioral health is a complicated issue and no one profession can do this alone. The need is so great that we have to work much more intentionally to break down professional barriers and have true interprofessional teams. That’s what this project is designed to do,” Dr. Juntunen explained.
While many in-state behavioral health services shut down at the start of COVID, NPCC remained open and went completely virtual in the matter of a week. Its partnerships with school systems throughout the state – Grand Forks, Beach, Williston, and colleges within the North Dakota University System – have contributed to the rise in the interest in mental health services. From the 2019-20 to the 2020-21 school years, virtual sessions increased by 64%.