Those of us who work in schools don’t need statistics to tell us that our children are in crisis; research supports our lived experience. Since 2017, rates of anxiety and depression among Californian children have soared 70%, and one-third of Californian teenagers have experienced severe psychological distress between 2019 and 2021, including a 20% increase in teen suicides. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected all communities, but it has exacerbated the trauma that already existed in communities of color and underresourced communities.
To his credit, Governor Gavin Newsom responded to this crisis by launching the Child and Youth Behavioral Health Initiative, a $4.4 billion investment in systems that support the behavioral health of California’s children. Our state has also increased its investment in the Community School Partnership Program, a school improvement strategy focused on partnering with the community to serve the “whole child.” I applaud both of these efforts to create better behavioral health systems for the future, but they fail to meet the immediate needs of students in crisis today.
While the Child and Youth Behavioral Health Initiative includes resources to build capacity in schools – where children spend the majority of their waking hours – our schools have yet to see them, and there are several barriers obtaining support through the Community Schools Partnership Program. The application process can take up to two years, and eligibility depends on the percentage of the school population who are eligible for free and reduced lunch, who are learning English or who are in homestay. Additionally, many schools lack the capacity to write and submit the application for the very reason they need this program – school resources are spread too thinly as they face unprecedented levels of student crises.
We have to fix the problems we see Today with immediate resources to meet the mental health needs of our students, alongside longer-term investments in future systems.
With these additional resources, schools can increase their ability to support the mental well-being of all students and focus on preventative strategies, in addition to crisis intervention. Schools can prevent an escalation of mental health issues by addressing children’s most basic needs, including the need to belong and connect, and by developing healthy coping skills that lead to better overall health. These supports create a school culture where students develop prosocial skills, make meaningful connections with trusted adults, and learn to take care of their own well-being. They also make schools safer.
School programming should include an evidence-based social-emotional learning curriculum, such as RULER, a systems approach developed at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, which has been implemented in several Aspire schools and others across California. . Parental engagement with the school can also make a significant difference in student well-being and overall academic achievement. Regular workshops for parents on topics such as bullying awareness, suicide prevention, and promoting resilience can build parents’ and guardians’ ability to support their child’s mental well-being.
Given the heavy burden educators carry, we also need to provide stronger training for those in classrooms every day. We need to help teachers interpret behaviors that may be an indicator of mental health need by understanding risk factors through a trauma-informed lens. Educators need to know how to help prevent crises, how to react when a crisis arises, how to deal with challenging behaviors that may result from students’ traumatic experience, and know when to seek additional help.
We know these interventions are effective, and with the continued shortage of mental health counselors, they can be implemented with non-clinical staff. But most public schools — especially those serving students from disadvantaged communities — need additional staff and training to implement them well.
That’s why we’re calling on policymakers to identify immediate, dedicated resources for schools to support student mental health, and why we support AB 1479. Sponsored by Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia, D-Coachella, this bill would establish a curriculum and funding for schools to develop additional supports for Grade 1 students – evidence-based programs that help all students develop the knowledge, skills and behaviors that lead to positive mental health outcomes. We look forward to working with any legislator who is committed to the long-term well-being of our children while appreciating the magnitude and urgency of this issue today.
When schools have the resources to meet students’ mental health needs, students will learn more, be more connected to their school community, and feel safer and better supported. Schools should not be forced to choose between the well-being and safety of their students and the resources necessary for learning. Our children are in crisis and cannot wait.
Cora PalmaPh.D., is ddirector of mental health services at Aspire Public Schools, a network of public charter schools.
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