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Burbank Unified’s inaugural Wellness Symposium deals with sensitive subjects

Parents at cocktail parties might discuss their cholesterol levels, but not that their teen is struggling with depression.

"But we should," state Sen. Anthony Portantino (D-La Cañada Flintridge) said in his opening remarks at Burbank Unified School District's inaugural Wellness Symposium held this past Saturday at John Burroughs High School.

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The event was designed to do just that, offering sessions about mental health and wellness for parents, community partners and employees of Burbank Unified and surrounding school districts.

"What I find most impressive about this entire effort is that this is a community that's willing to have difficult conversations and address the issue of mental health of children and adults, and take it on," said Tom Kissinger, assistant superintendent of educational services.

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In one session, helmed by clinical social worker Kate Sheehan, participants were led through a presentation on understanding anxiety in children and young adults.

Sheehan, who works for a UCLA department focused on those issues, offered practical tips for parents and teachers to support children with problematic relationships to stress.

"Sometimes a family member can be more thrown off by a child's anxiety than the child," Sheehan said.

Another session confronted bullying and cyberbullying, propagating a model of enhanced empathy for all parties.

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"In society, overall, we tend to vilify the bully. These are children," said session leader Johanna Chase, who also heads the school district's wellness efforts.

While the vehicle for bullying has shifted to social-media platforms, Chase said the underlying behavioral processes are ultimately the same. All forms of bullying can be reduced by teaching impulse control, she said.

Nuria Lundberg, a Spanish translator for Burbank Unified, took a very different approach in her wellness-focused session titled "Embracing Your Path to Empathy."

Explaining that her true passion is meditation and mindfulness, Lundberg eschewed talking points and asked attendees to look directly into each other's eyes with guided dialogue, including "I welcome you into my heart."

The symposium concluded with a spate of fitness classes, including yoga, meditation and a more physically demanding "crunch class."

"I tell everyone as I go around the state that Burbank is really on the cutting edge of this conversation about mental health and wellness," said Portantino, who represents several communities, including Burbank and Glendale.

Portantino lost his brother to suicide several years ago and has been on a "mini-crusade" to create more open dialogue around mental health, he said.

Beyond the symposium, which was underwritten by a grant from the California Mental Health Services Authority, the district has two "wellness centers" — one at John Burroughs High and the other at Burbank High — where students can go during the day for a "respite" from stressors, Chase said.

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The centers started from a partnership with the Family Service Agency of Burbank, a local nonprofit that's been in existence for more than six decades.

Tours of the John Burroughs wellness center were held during the symposium and allowed community members to walk into the gray and yellow room filled with expansive couches, adult coloring books and private rooms, where students can engage with one of the two onsite therapists. Nature sounds waft in the background.

It's a place "for students to go to if they're struggling with a personal issue or a school-related issue, or anything that's causing them difficulty in their lives," Kissinger said. "They have an opportunity to go and get away from it all or actually get support from staff there."

"Kids are very respectful of the space," said Ginny Goodwin, one of the agency's director of operations. She pointed to a wall of Post-it Notes where students logged their first impressions of the center, including missives such as "good vibes," "much needed" and "smells amazing."

Lila Seidman is a contributor to Times Community News.

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