“I keep picturing these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all…And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all.”
— Holden Caulfield, 16, from J.D. Salinger’s novel 
Catcher in the Rye 

Monica Nepomuceno of the California Department of Education Credit: M. Nepomuceno

Monica Nepomuceno has something in common with the protagonist of J.D. Salinger’s classic novel: She wants to save all the children in danger of going over the edge of some crazy cliff.

In Nepomuceno’s case, she spends each day battling for all the school kids and teens in California who suffer from suicidal thoughts or other mental health disorders.

As an education programs consultant at the California Department of Education and chair of a suicide prevention committee, Nepomuceno has been working to slash the number of school-age suicides since 2009 – a year marked by a cluster of train-track suicides among high school students in affluent Palo Alto. Nationally, suicide is the second leading cause of death for youth ages 10 to 34

“Monica is relentless, bold, and willing to do whatever it takes,” says Marlon Morgan, a former school counselor who is now executive director of Wellness Together School Mental Health, a California nonprofit that partners with schools to provide mental health services. “She possesses the communications and relational skills to get people on the same page, even if they don’t start out that way.”

One reason Nepomuceno is such a passionate advocate for children in pain is that she has been there. She developed anxiety as a small child that was exacerbated at age 9, when she worried that her beloved big brother in the Marines would be sent to war. It turned out he wasn’t called to combat, but her anxiety didn’t go away.

“It is like a pot of boiling water in my belly that just kind of spreads through my body,” she says. “I feel like I’m more sensitive than other people, as if I carry my nerve endings right at my skin.” 

She assumed others were plagued by the same crushing anxiety she felt. It wasn’t until she was in her early 30s and had her first panic attack that Nepomuceno realized she had a treatable condition.

That episode was triggered by trying to work full-time and teach while going to graduate school. “It felt like the weight of the world was on my shoulders,” she says. “I started to hyperventilate. At that point I was just like, you know what? I don’t care if I don’t finish school. I don’t care if I get fired. I don’t care right now. I just need to live.”

With no resources available at her university to help her manage her anxiety, she turned to her mother and older sister for help. “They made me some hot tea and just sat with me and talked and validated everything that I was feeling,” she says. “They were my source of strength at that point, so I was able to forge on.”

Years later, when she next had a panic attack, she was seeing a therapist and working on her anxiety issues. This time, she was able to manage it with that support and the tools she had learned in counseling.

Nepomuceno also saw the power of counseling in her first job as an outreach specialist in a rural elementary school in Sacramento County. She and her colleagues had brought in a therapist to work part-time with students with behavioral problems, and it soon triggered an unexpected change. Children who had been sullen and disengaged were smiling in class.

“There was a sort of hope and joy in their faces that wasn’t there before,” she says. The school-based therapist also worked with the teachers to help them accept, respect and support “problem” students, regardless of test scores or grade point averages.

“That was years before anyone talked about students and trauma, and I’m so happy now that we have lots of initiatives around mental health and social and emotional learning,” she says. “This way we can help students self-regulate and communicate their needs in a better way than just acting out.”

Today in her role with the education department, Nepomuceno works to keep students with mental disorders from experiencing the torment, scorn and isolation suffered by some of her troubled classmates in high school. Withdrawn and depressed, they were shunned by other students, she recalls.

“There was a ton of bullying, drinking and drug use in high school, and people tried to help students with these issues, but if kids were depressed or suicidal, nobody talked about it,” she says. “There were no conversations about getting them help. Students would say things like ‘I can’t believe they’re so weak’ or ‘what a loser’ — things that perpetuated the stigma. There were no initiatives on the part of the school or community to help them, nothing.”

To root out such stigma and indifference, Nepomuceno leads a monthly webinar series on suicide prevention and helps schools develop their own suicide prevention policy (a department of education requirement).  holds online events for students, and helps organize and speaks at an annual student mental health conference sponsored by Wellness Together School Mental Health. She pushes for more counselors on school campuses, promotes school counseling that is compassionate and respectful of different cultures, and coordinates mental health training for parents and teachers.

“I encourage teachers to model the behavior they want,” she says. “If they’re having a bad day, I tell them, it’s okay to let your students know and ask them to be gentle with you today.” She also encourages them to teach kids techniques like breathing and exercise to help them when they’re under stress and to ask for help if they need it.

As a coordinator for the Cal-Well Project,  a federal initiative designed to raise awareness of mental health, she has helped thousands of school staff get trained in Youth Mental Health First Aid. In one of her favorite initiatives, she helped develop student-led mental health clubs on high school campuses, in a partnership with the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “I’m amazed at the passion these students have,” Nepomuceno says.

Nepomuceno remembers her own high school days: “If kids were depressed or suicidal…other students would say things like ‘I can’t believe they’re so weak’ or ‘what a loser.’” Credit: DaisyDaisy/Shutterstock

Membership is open to everyone. The students are involved in everything from sharing wellness information to hosting mental health fairs. At tables outside AP test locations, they hand out stress balls and fortune cookies that say, “You can do this.” The students also host self-care webinars and send positive messages through Instagram and Snapchat, she adds.

As the state and country struggle to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, Nepomuceno puts her faith in youth.

“What gives me hope for the future is that these students are so informed and eloquent, and their commitment is just amazing,” she says. “They are true warriors who are going to be lifelong advocates.

“I think about all the little Monicas out there,” she adds. “I don’t want other children and youth to be exposed to prolonged suffering without any support.  If I had learned coping strategies and mindfulness, perhaps my life would have been more enjoyable.”

This story was adapted from an article originally published on the website of the Steinberg Institute.