To Help Fight a Mental Health Crisis in Schools, Community Groups Step In

In stressful moments, it is always useful to have someone by your side. When it comes to providing mental health services, school districts can use some additional support as well.

In California, experts agree that the pandemic has exacerbated already deep-rooted mental health challenges for students. An August report from the Little Hoover Commission, an independent state watchdog agency, called the pandemic a “perfect storm of stress, anxiety, and trauma,” and a United Way of Greater Los Angeles survey this summer found 42 percent of students listed mental health as a priority. Maximum and more than half expressed some level of concern about their mental health. About a third of students of color said they did not have an adult in school with whom they could safely share their feelings.

With federal funding pouring in for pandemic relief and potential money from the state budget surplus, many counties in California are finding themselves pouring in with more resources for mental health services than they have in years. But this funding faces a familiar problem: staff shortages. In this situation, there may not be enough trained mental health professionals in the school to get around. To bridge the gap, some districts are partnering with community organizations to provide essential services to students with difficulties using the human infrastructure that already exists.

Many people in California are experiencing tsunami mental health needs. However, there are not enough professionals and dedicated assistants to truly meet the need,” says Kristen Stoner-Mertz, CEO of the California Alliance, a network that supports and advocates for “member” community organizations that provide children and family services across the state. Many of our members, given workforce challenges, have tried to expand and increase… partnerships with schools.”

Increased mental health needs

Students’ mental health has been particularly at risk under the pandemic because distance learning has hampered traditional school services, says Alison Picquart, chief program officer at a youth-focused community organization, The Lincoln Family. She notes that mental health referrals to school counselors have decreased significantly because teachers were not able to easily monitor the well-being of their students through a monitor.

Today, elementary students take longer to get back into school routines, she says, and among the older students, fighting and self-harm have increased.

Robin Detterman, executive director of Seneca Family of Agencies, a community organization that provides mental health, education, and juvenile justice services across California and Washington, has seen the same trend. At a school in East Oakland where Seneca screened 200 fourth graders for a new trauma support group, Dettermann expected to enroll a handful of participants. I was shocked to find that about 60 percent of these students meet the criteria for exposure to trauma and the need for more intensive support.

“When you look at this as the basis of what happens in school, the way we have traditionally treated mental health as an add-on no longer works,” she says.

range of services

Partnerships with community organizations is one way school districts can meet this growing need, says Stoner-Mertz, especially because it allows teachers and staff to access a wide range of services, from crisis-level counseling by outside therapists, to regular monitoring and screening – Additional by lower-level workers from both schools and partner groups. Everyone will need a different level [of support]”, she says.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Seneca has adapted its school services with this guidance in mind. In some cases, they provide coaches who act as coordinators for teachers and students in schools and in others they send providers such as therapists and behavioral health aids directly to classrooms.

Seneca is also part of a statewide movement known as CalAIM that is calling, in part, for more comprehensive coverage under the state’s Medicaid program, so that essential services for families — such as grocery delivery and housing resources — can be considered part of the mindset. health support.

“In the past year and a half, not a lot of our focus has been specifically on what you might think of as ‘treatment,'” says Dettermann. Instead, she says their work has been consolidated throughout the entire school, now extending to families’ daily needs. “And that of course is the foundation for all kinds of wellness, especially emotional wellness.”

Providing comprehensive support to students also means that children with difficulties can be identified and referred to counselors or non-emergency mental health programs, or simply seek regular informal check-in procedures, before they reach a crisis, she says. Under the traditional school counseling model, and because of government Medicaid policies, students and families who cannot afford outpatient mental health treatment often have to wait to receive a diagnosis or until their needs become urgent before they qualify for any school services. “It doesn’t happen to families with potential,” she says.

shift workload

This integrated approach can also reduce the pressure on mental health professionals with the highest level of training by shifting some of the workload to less specialized – but more accessible teachers and counselors.

“One of the things we talked about is … interventions that probably don’t require someone to have a license or a master’s degree, but you can train to identify at least some of the major issues,” Picquart says, of the Lincoln families.

In elementary schools, her institution provides intervention specialists, who do not usually hold advanced degrees, to provide lower-level services to students referred by school leaders. The organization also offers a number of other services including group therapy, newsletters for teachers to help them identify toxic stress in students and themselves, and arts-based therapy programs.

One such art initiative was launched this fall to address ongoing, but not yet crisis-level, mental health needs among students at Fred Te Korematsu Discovery Academy and Esperanza Primary School, within Auckland Unified. There, students use feathers, wire, and other materials to create their allies, known as “worried warriors.” The characters, based on Guatemalan anxiety dolls, help children talk through anxiety and uncertainty with trained doctors.

The Worry Warrior Project employs Lincoln physicians trained by Francine Ostrem, the foundation’s clinical director. She originally designed the arts-based remedial program for a variety of students, including those with life-threatening medical conditions, but turned it on for students experiencing coronavirus-related stress this fall.

“These are not arts and crafts,” Ostrem says. “This says to the child, ‘We take you seriously, we see you… and we want to know what you think and feel.'” ”

This statement has a powerful impact. When a few students have access to more comprehensive mental health resources, an entire school can benefit, Bekouar says.

“More children are receiving some short-term intervention,” she says. “And that’s going to have an impact on the whole school culture because then we also have more kids who are self-aware, more kids who have words to describe what they’re going through and more tools in their toolkit to deal with their pain and grief.”

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