Monterey Peninsula Unified School District addresses socio-emotional needs with equine therapy – Monterey Herald
CARMEL VALLEY – Saddles hanging from gates, hoof prints stuck in hay and spools of worn rope – have you walked into a stable or a therapist’s office? For some students and staff at the Monterey Peninsula Unified School District, the answer is both.
With the help of the Equine Healing Collaborative, students, teachers and parents of Monterey Peninsula Unified will have access to new group equine therapy sessions starting next week.
Scheduled during after-school hours and weekends, the two-hour sessions located at the collaborative’s Carmel Valley ranch will provide targeted mental health support to different areas of the district. Opportunities available include group therapy for 13-17 year olds, the LGBTQIA community, and Spanish speaking women.
Offered as an option to get out of schools for help, these sessions trade couches for corrals to address the socio-emotional shortcomings the district has endured since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
âMany needs have also arisen with COVID for students and staff,â said Donnie Everett, deputy superintendent of the Unified Multilevel Support System for the Monterey Peninsula. âBeing able to go outside, interacting with the horses in a safe environment and having plenty of time to think is another kind of alternative experience that we’ve seen people respond to well. “
Unlike traditional treatments, the equitherapy office is not bounded by walls and self-reflection involves caring for an animal rather than answering a question. Mental health specialists observe clients as they lead, groom and interact with the horses. As clients build relationships with their clogged confidants, they tap into and process emotions otherwise difficult to uncover in regular person-to-person conversation.
This alternate connection between man and horse is what the Equine Healing Collaborative and the Monterey Peninsula Unified hope to cultivate among students, staff and parents – a goal long overdue.
The upcoming Equine Sessions are an extension of a relationship that Monterey Peninsula Unified and the Equine Healing Collaborative have cultivated over the past 18 months. Although a collaboration was briefly discussed in early 2020, the program only took off when the pandemic revealed how important face-to-face connection can be and what is missing when it is gone.
âIt has become a way to connect with each other and get away from the screen,â said Meghan Giles, mental health specialist at the Equine Healing Collaborative. âIt’s taxing to do distance learning every day, so we wanted to give them a break and the opportunity to just be in nature. “
When it became increasingly clear that in-person classes weren’t coming back anytime soon, Giles, who is also a mental health specialist with Monterey Peninsula Unified, knew that equine therapy could provide a much-needed break for one. seemingly endless screen time. Even as the threat of COVID-19 had just set in, she and two other mental health specialists pitched their idea to the district. Momentum for the program has since built.
âThe program really caught on like wildfire,â said PK Diffenbaugh, superintendent of Monterey Peninsula Unified. âWe started with a small group of students, then it turned into a waiting list. â¦ It really responds to a need that we are seeing at all levels of the district in terms of having to fill in socio-emotional support and personal care.
âBeing able to offer different avenues of mental health support was important to us because we really saw the need for it. The need has always been there, but it became more acute during the pandemic. “
According to a 2020 mental health screening of nearly 2.5 million people nationwide, Mental Health America has found that the stress of COVID-19 has a lasting and detrimental impact. It found that 77% of young people surveyed were at risk of emotional, attentional or behavioral difficulties. More than half a million people screened had anxiety and almost 85% reported suffering from moderate to severe depression. Controllers attributed these mental health issues in large part to feelings of isolation and loneliness triggered by the pandemic.
The story was the same at Monterey Peninsula Unified.
âI think for the students there has been an increase in isolation, anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts,â Diffenbaugh said. âFor staff and teachers, moving to distance learning was new and very difficult for people. Educators get their energy from seeing students every day, and not seeing them made an already difficult job all the more demanding.
Upon returning to school, these problems have persisted and presented in the form of emotional disruption, or when someone cannot properly deal with emotional responses to situations, Giles explained.
âA lot of children now find it difficult not to have the ability to self-regulate and learn,â she said. âWe look back on their current situation and what they have lost in the last year in terms of social skills. “
It turns out that equine therapy is particularly suitable for treating deregulation.
âEquitherapy is so great because you have to be self-regulated,â Giles said. “Horses feed on your energy.”
Like humans, horses are sensitive to movement and emotion, often reflecting client behavior and conveying understanding without a verbal response. Clients can then use a horse’s mirror reaction as an internal recording and develop their self-awareness, Giles said.
This recalibration opportunity is one of the ways Diffenbaugh believes Monterey Peninsula Unified can get back on track for this school year.
âPeople need unconditional support,â he said. âThey need to be able to express themselves without being judgmental and without being ashamed. â¦ It is difficult to open up to another human being when this approach allows a different path to tap into different emotions expressed in a truly healthy way.
So far, the response has been only positive and the job is not nearly done.
âIt was a very powerful experience for all of us,â said one teacher of his time in equine therapy. “It was wonderful to see each individual grow on their own journey, and I am grateful for the safe space to reflect on my own internal thoughts and processes.”