CDE continues conversation on mental health investments

Following September’s “Investing in Mental Health” webinar, the California Department of Education hosted a second meeting to continue discussing ways to support students, school staff and families amid disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Oct. 28 event included representatives from the California Department of Health Care Services, State Board of Education, California School Nurses Organization and California Association of School Counselors, among other stakeholder organizations.

“In some ways I think we are trying to come back to normalcy, and I think we have to acknowledge that we are still in the middle of a pandemic and we’re tired,” said Christine Stoner-Mertz, chief executive officer for the California Alliance of Child and Family Services. “Teachers are tired, parents and kids are exhausted, but we still have to be acting with urgency.”

Stoner-Mertz added that she would like to see systems of support respond and perform with an urgency matching the mental health crisis at hand as they did in March 2020 at the onset of the pandemic.

Jacob Lam, assistant deputy direct of health care financing at DHS, has taken a lead role on health initiatives related to existing claims programs and the school-based health incentive program launching in January.

With the investments made through the recent budget, the agency is figuring out how to encourage and build relationships between local educational agencies, counties and Medi-Cal managed care plans.

“We often talk about our behavioral health system in California and talk about it focused on the county responsibility — and the counties certainly are responsible for the specialty mental health services provided to our students — but it’s also important to remember that our managed care plans are responsible for the non-specialty services that those kids receive,” Lam stated.

Coordinating the care between entities along with improving access and providing care on campuses are focus areas for the department. Lam noted that financing and billing for services shouldn’t be a barrier to students receiving the assistance they need.

DHS is also committed to getting technical assistance contractors to school sites to help staff learn how to use the programs, according to Lam.

Support for students, families and school workers

Historic investments by the state in the K-12 space are already having an impact.

“This year alone there’s been an estimated 2,500 additional school counselors supporting our school sites, which is amazing and wonderful,” said Lezya Weglarz, vice chair of the California Association of School Counselors. Weglarz, who also oversees the counseling program at San Marcos School District, said that multi-tiered systems of support based on data are often a good option to get students the help they need.

Laila Fahimuddin, policy director at SBE, spoke on the community school model. With $3 billion in investments in community schools in California slated over the next several years, LEAs can create or expand partnerships.

“One of the things we hear a lot from our LEA colleagues is a sense of overwhelm on how to effectively bring resources together in a meaningful way and the community school model really does offer an intentional, thoughtful framework for how LEAs can consider doing that,” Fahimuddin said.

Dr. Michael Giambona, board member at the California Association of School Psychologists, shared his experience working in a model “where there is a collaboration between county mental health and the school district with a contract to be reimbursed fully through Medi-Cal for the school psychologist providing the mental health supports to those students.”

He mentioned that the piece that has allowed for the most success is the partnership and shared vision between the school district (which he did not specify) and county mental health. What started as part-time wraparound services has evolved into a program with 10 schools with mobile mental health support that help about 180 students a year. Those in charge meet regularly.

California School Nurses Organization President-elect Dawn Anderson said that with 50 percent to 60 percent of students in California who have Medi-Cal, plus many others who are struggling, better pathways to referrals would go a long way. Anderson added that some rural districts aren’t able to apply for the grants or funding related to Medi-Cal that larger districts qualify for and could be a big resource.

Strengthening the relationship between schools and families, which can be as simple as events where educators and families gather over coffee and conversation, is also key to supporting youth.

Self-help tools available through the CalHOPE website can be of value to students, families and teachers.

Read CSBA’s recap of the first “Investing in Mental Health” webinar here.