“When you’re bullied for your religion, it really harms your self-esteem. Someone might even give up their religion, choosing between family and culture or fitting in with friends. Their practice of religion can start to feel inauthentic, as practicing your faith requires you to be attentive and intentional.”
In June 2023, CAIR-Austin interviewed Dr. Jessenia Garcia, an assistant professor at St. Edward’s University, on the topic of religious accommodations’ impacts on teen mental health. Her passion for mental health stems from her immigrant upbringing, which has allowed her to pursue her own virtual private practice as well as a doctoral degree in counselor education and supervision.
Note: This interview was slightly edited for readability
Please tell us about your background, education, and experience
I am a daughter of immigrants, where my mother is from Mexico and my dad is from El Salvador. Those identities have really pushed me to look at the mental health of immigrants and children of immigrants. It is an area that I have really focused on as a clinician and as a researcher. I see clients through a virtual private practice, so I focus on things like anxiety, depression, cultural conflicts, etc. I have worked at a high school and with children in residential living spaces in the past, but most of the work I do now is with adults 18 and up. I have a master's degree in clinical mental health counseling from the University of Texas San Antonio which is where I also got my doctoral degree in counselor education and supervision from. I finished my PhD in May 2020 and I've been teaching since.
How do you see bullying in the public school system affecting high school students and teenagers, especially since you worked in the past with them on mental health challenges?
Developmentally, when you're in middle school and high school, your social circle is a really important aspect of teen identity. At that stage of their life, teens are trying to figure out who they are, taking their values and beliefs from their parents, and trying to establish their own values and belief systems. When you have unfortunate incidents like bullying, where teens are made to feel ashamed of who they are, then that creates an internal conflict. Bullying can impact many aspects of their mental health. We see this show up as being anxious and distracted in school, because if you are fearful that you are at any moment going to be harassed, it’s difficult to focus on the material at hand. It isn't because they aren’t interested, but because there is anxiety about what is going to happen between classes or after school based on who they are. We might also see this as depression, where students who don’t want to go to school feel sick in the morning, because internally and psychologically they are very stressed out. School has become a negative aspect of their life, so they feel like they're stuck there. What we know about depression is that there are a lot of feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness, so bullying can really amplify those things, especially when you're in a school where you're stuck with those people. If the bullying isn't taken care of administratively, that person is really stuck there. You might have students missing class, making excuses not to go, and also just withdrawing. When you are depressed, anxious, or don’t feel safe, there is no room for you to be creative, spontaneous, have fun, laugh, and learn. Teens in that situation won’t even share what’s going on, because internally they feel there isn’t much to be done and they feel hopelessness in the situation.
What are some different ways that students can fit into public school culture with the pressure of bullying?
I think it depends on the level of support that's available to that student. One thing that is really helpful is connecting students to a community, so they can see themselves in a strong and confident way. That might be in the form of creating a student organization that can be a safe haven for them. Even though they are experiencing a lot of bullying on the outside, they can go back to that safe space and appreciate parts about themselves.
One thing that happens when there's no opportunity to go back and have those strengths reflected is that the messages from the bullying get internalized. They start to believe it, and that can be internalized racism, islamophobia, … etc. because no one else is checking in. Creating a community of friends, family, clubs, or anything like that can really help somebody not internalize and instead be able to deflect it. They can identify that it is an external problem about society and the bully, and not about them.
What can schools do about this?
Schools need to have conversations around this administratively, where they need to talk about what inclusivity really looks like. Talking about different religious holidays, different months dedicated to a cultural group, and having conversations with their students about different cultural groups, will allow students to get immersed in a different culture. What I have my students do is attend a cultural event where they have to be the minority. They have to go and experience being a minority and talk about what it is like. Things like cultural immersion help foster empathy. One thing that can be helpful is presentations, which includes informing students and staff about different events and challenges that are going on at this time. We can equip teachers how to respond to bullying and what to do when a student reports it. We can teach them how to be supportive, and how they can play their part to ensure they are creating a safe space for everybody.
How do you see bullying based on religion and how does this impact the student in a different way?
When you are trying to integrate all parts of your identity in a healthy way, it's called acculturation. When there are challenges, however, it turns into acculturated stress, which can lead to mental health issues. When you’re bullied for your religion, it really harms your self-esteem. Someone might even give up their religion, choosing between family and culture or fitting in with friends. Their practice of religion can start to feel inauthentic, as practicing your faith requires you to be attentive and intentional.
What is the relationship between stereotyping in the media and community and bullying in schools?
There's a big component of socialization that's occurring. Teens are trying to figure out who they are, and what goes into that is the messages they receive from society. This can be through social media, television, radio, etc. Unfortunately, there are instances where there is really harmful language and stereotypes that are being perpetuated in the media. Teens are like sponges, where they are soaking everything in the media to help them sort those things out. They take those messages and push them back out. When Trump introduced the Muslim Ban, that perpetuated Islamophobia, and a lot of people were affected on a personal level. The media doesn’t understand how that trickles down and how it impacts teens. When we have harmful messages like that, then we see a spike in bullying, hate crimes, and violence against Muslims or whatever cultural group it was against.