Addressing short- and long-term student mental health needs

What impact has two years of living through a pandemic had on the mental health of our youth? And what can be done to help mitigate the effects?

Answering these two questions was central to a June 1 roundtable discussion hosted by the Public Policy Institute of California. Key among the reoccurring topics were continued awareness and investment, prevention and early intervention, and community partnerships.

“I think we need to be real and honest in recognizing that adolescent mental health had worsened in the years prior to the pandemic,” said Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Alberto M. Carvalho. “COVID, however, has brought it to the forefront with a full range of now well-understood stressors.”

The rate of suicide for those ages 10 to 24 increased nearly 60 percent between 2007 and 2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At the same time, awareness of the seriousness of youth mental health issues and funding to combat them have greatly increased since the onset of the pandemic.

Awareness and investment

Maintaining awareness of and investments in youth mental health supports and services will be critical moving forward — especially as long-term solutions are implemented, said Melissa Stafford Jones, director of the California Health and Human Services Agency’s children and youth behavioral health initiative.

“We have to be able to focus on some of the immediate needs and what we’re seeing in terms of support for children and youth … But we also know that these [are] long-term challenges,” Stafford Jones said. “Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of easy, quick fixes. These issues are long term and some of the ways we’re seeing to address them, some of it is mid- and longer-term work that will be challenging and require us to actually make changes to the systems we have that support social and emotional well-being. Because we have to remember that it’s the systems we have today that are producing the results and the inequitable outcomes that we are getting today, so we’re going to have to make some fundamental and foundational changes to those systems.”

Carvalho agreed, noting that policymakers at every level must remain committed to making the necessary investments in staffing and services even after federal dollars run out. “As a nation, as a state, we need continuity of awareness, continuity of funding to address — particularly among the most disproportionality affected communities — the issue of mental health and social-emotional support,” he said.

Prevention and early intervention

Lishaun Francis, director of behavioral health for Children Now, highlighted the importance of heading off mental health challenges before they arise, which means schools cannot be the first point of contact when it comes to support. Rather, prevention should begin by supporting parents and caregivers of young children, toddlers and even infants, she said.

“Most of the time, the things that we want to see from adolescents are skills that we have to start very early instilling in them — and coping mechanisms that have to start very early,” Francis said. “I think we’ve learned that our foundation was poor.”

Stafford Jones agreed that there is a significant need to embed prevention and early intervention into the systems currently being developed through the Children and Youth Behavioral Health Initiative.

In Los Angeles USD, psychiatric social workers provide trauma-informed prevention services at education centers through the district’s trauma- and resilience-informed early enrichment program, Carvalho said.

All students undoubtedly need support, he said, but particularly younger children who were more vulnerable to the impacts of social isolation, loss of routine and stressors in community.

“The issue of prevention is really clear to us,” Carvalho said. “We need to consider the ways by which we strengthen the resilience skills of students.”

Community partnerships

LEAs will need to be strategic in creating solutions that are unique to different populations, Francis said.

“We know that if you’re working with the Black community, there are going to be specific interventions that the Black community is going to receive and that they are going to be open to in order to have an impact on that group,” she said. “Same for [the] Latino community, same for our [Asian American Pacific Islander] community, same for our Native American community. So, we need to really think about our solutions in terms of sub-populations.”

Recognizing that a one-size-fits-all approach will not meet the needs of many students, Carvalho said the district will be working closely with and investing in local partners already doing much of this work.

“This cannot be a crusader’s journey, this cannot be a savior’s journey — it’s one of realizing and recognizing that community solutions born out of the community itself with the appropriate resource investment work best for those individual communities,” Carvalho said. “I don’t have the answer, but a lot of these answers actually reside with community agencies that are embedded in the communities they serve. These communities don’t want off-the-shelf solutions, they want organic solutions.”