It’s time to go to school on student mental health

By Dr. Susan Heredia, CSBA President

There are exceedingly few silver linings to be found in the tragedy of COVID-19. The academic and social disruption our students have experienced is profound. Yet, if there is one welcome development from the pandemic, it’s the increased attention paid to mental health. Belatedly, society and the Legislature have recognized youth mental health as both an absolute good as well as a precondition for the academic and personal development we hope to nurture in our students.

Earlier this year, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a new proposal, the Community Assistance, Recovery and Empowerment (CARE) Court, to reinvent the way California addresses adult mental health on a statewide level. Elsewhere in the Capitol, a number of bills have been submitted to address mental health — many of them specific to student mental health. This focus is long overdue.

Even before the pandemic, one in three high schoolers reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness. The pandemic has only exacerbated the problem, as from 2019 to 2020, the rate of mental health-related emergency department visits increased by 24 percent for children ages 5–11 and 31 percent for adolescents ages 12–15. Overall, about 7.7 million young people in the U.S. experience a mental health condition annually and suicide is the second-leading cause of death for people ages 10 to 24.

It’s no surprise that school board members and superintendents across the state see the need for prompt action. In CSBA’s 2021 membership survey, members were asked to identify their top priorities and mental health topped both the advocacy and research categories. In terms of advocacy, responses indicating that mental health should be CSBA’s number-one priority outdistanced the second-place option (declining enrollment) by 20 percent. These results show that a problem that has been building for some time has exploded with the additional pressures of the past two years.

For decades, California has lagged behind other states in the number of adults on campus. Whether measuring student–teacher ratios or the numbers of librarians, nurses and other support staff on campus, California ranks near the bottom. This trend is particularly evident where mental health professionals are concerned. A new, national “Mental Health Report Card” from the Hopeful Futures Campaigns found that California has one school psychologist for every 998 students, barely half the recommended ratio of 1:500. Our state has just one school social worker for every 6,132 students and one school counselor for every 612, when the recommended ratio for both positions is 1:250 students.

That’s a troubling deficit in any period, let alone at a time when our students have suffered so much trauma. Schools are in a unique position to support early detection for mental illness, since half of all mental illness presents itself before age 14. Yet, we forfeit much of our opportunity to identify or intervene because of inadequate staffing levels and, sometimes, a failure to fully leverage Medicaid dollars to fund mental health services.

State and local leaders are part of the solution

That’s not to say we haven’t made progress on the issue. The 2021–22 Budget Act funds the Children and Youth Behavioral Health Initiative  at more than $4 billion over five years in order to build a significant new behavioral health infrastructure for children and youth in California. The initiative includes a variety of programs to expand mental health services to children and youth through county schools and behavioral health programs.

Other welcome developments include Senate Bill 224 (Chapter 675/Statutes of 2021), which requires that by January 2024, all school districts that offer a health course (about 60 percent of districts) include mental health instruction within that course. And pursuant to Assembly Bill 309 (Chapter 662/Statutes of 2021), the California Department of Education is developing new model referral protocols to address pupil mental health concerns that will help schools intervene with students and connect them with counseling or other services.

This year’s legislative slate features more bills that would establish pilot programs and grants that school districts could apply for in order to establish mental health referral and assistance programs. The major concern with these legislative proposals is that they are not funded so that all schools can benefit, and instead rely predominantly on competitive grants — meaning that many students will not receive these critical programs and services.

Beyond these developments in the Legislature, trustees can work at the local level to support student mental health, such as enacting policy that ensures that staff receives training on recognizing the symptoms of mental health problems; providing access to school-based mental health supports; ensuring a safe, positive school environment; promoting social- emotional learning; and expanding school-based mental health programs. Boards should also consider developing programs to support the mental health of staff who have been worn thin by the trials of the past two years.

One example is in east Los Angeles County where the Valle Lindo School District developed the Golden Bell Award-winning program RISE: Respond, Intervene, Support, Empower for students and adults to connect in healthy and meaningful ways. RISE is a comprehensive districtwide program dedicated to promoting healthy and resilient students by providing school-based, on-site and virtual mental health services and social-emotional supports. Services include individual and group counseling, family workshops, social-emotional learning classes for students and community-based mental health therapy partnerships.

There’s no denying that this is difficult work and society as a whole must to do more to support youth mental health. As school leaders, we are in a special position to help students develop resilience in the area of mental health — doing so fulfills our moral obligation while providing students with a stronger foundation to reach academic goals.