The Governor and the Legislature should assertively respond to the growing mental health crisis among California’s children with a comprehensive effort to make schools “centers of wellness,” the Commission has concluded.
In a public meeting on October 22, the Commission unanimously adopted a set of guiding principles and specific recommendations for improving and expanding community-based partnerships that have demonstrated the ability to address the trauma, anxiety and depression experienced by one in five schoolchildren.
The report, Every Young Heart and Mind: Schools as Centers of Wellness, is the product of more than 20 community meetings, many of them within the communities struggling to overcome intergenerational poverty, disproportionately poor health outcomes and systemic racism. The Commission also consulted deeply with educational and mental health experts and practitioners who have been entrepreneurially forging partnerships to better identify and meet the needs of schoolchildren and their families, including younger siblings who are not yet in school.
The report distills the depth of what one educator called the “crisis-filled lives” of children and youth:
- One in three high school students report feeling chronically sad and hopeless – and more than half of LGBTQ students feel that way.
- One in six high school students report having considered suicide in the past year – one in three LGBTQ students have had those thoughts.
- Half to three quarters of students with mental health needs do not receive needed care.
- Racial, ethnic and cultural disparities concentrate the risk factors, prevalence rates and service gaps in low-income communities of color.
The report also synthesizes the experience, the collective wisdom and the emerging evidence and insight about how the mental health needs of children and youth can be met, and the essential role of schools as both the venue and means for responding to these needs.
This analysis yielded the Commission’s overarching conclusion that the State should respond to this imperative by establishing a leadership structure, investing the resources, and helping communities build the capacities required to provide effective and sustainable partnerships.
Specifically, the Commission recommended the Governor take the lead to coordinate with the Superintendent of Public Instruction, the state Board of Education and the Health and Human Services Agency to unify their support for county offices of education and local school districts.
Commissioner Dave Gordon, who chaired the project subcommittee and also is the Sacramento County Superintendent of Schools, said the COVID-19 pandemic and disruptions in education have elevated the importance of the Commission’s recommendations.
“We know students have suffered by being isolated from their friends, teachers and other supports,” Gordon said. “And the Commission’s work on suicide prevention, tells us they are also in increased danger. As the school districts attempt to ram up emergency counseling and other interventions, we must build financially sustainable partnerships that make schools centers of wellness, and that will require assertive and united state leadership.”
The Governor and the Legislature in 2018 were informed in part by the Commission’s project when it enacted the Mental Health Student Services Act, which resulted in $75 million being allocated to 18 county partnerships. While the pandemic-induced recession may make it more difficult to increase that investment, the Commission believes this investment will be essential to the recovery of families that have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and the recession, just as it is essential to achieving the state’s long-term educational goals.
“This project expands our how we think of schools and mental health,” said Mara Madrigal-Weiss, who is Vice Chair of the Commission and the Director of Student Wellness and Positive School Climate and Foster and Homeless Youth Education Programs for the San Diego County Office of Education. “Schools should be places of continued learning, for students and for the families. Implementing these recommendations will strengthen the ability of schools to support the overall wellness and empowerment for families and by extension communities.”
The Commission initiated the project in 2016 in part to explore how the Mental Health Services Act could be better deployed to drive transformational change in the services and supports for children and their families.
"As a parent of a child with serious mental illness and as someone who works with young people, I observe daily how important wellness is for school success,” said Commissioner Gladys Mitchell, who also served on the project subcommittee. “There is a critical need for greater mental health awareness and services in schools, as well as outreach to families who may need support and services of their own."
At the direction of the Legislature, the Commission is implementing Striving for Zero, the state’s suicide prevention plan that the Commission developed and adopted in 2019. The plan recognizes that youth attempt suicide at greater rates than any other age group and identifies youth of color as among the most at-risk groups to attempt suicide. The pandemic response has eroded many protective factors for youth, such as connectedness to community and social institutions like schools that promote healthy and active lifestyles, elevating the need to strengthen school-based partnerships.
The report is one of several Commission projects to transform services for children and youth, including a project that is empowering youth to design and implement effective mental health strategies and another that is expanding crisis response system to meet the needs of children and families. The Commission will work with State and local partners to implement the recommendations.