In summary

More school-based health centers are needed for California students and communities under stress from the COVID-19 pandemic.

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By Tracy Mendez, Special to CalMatters

Tracy Mendez is the executive director of California School-Based Health Alliance,

Youth in California are struggling with trauma, anxiety and isolation brought about by distance learning, the COVID-19 pandemic and widespread economic distress falling most heavily on vulnerable and disenfranchised communities. Both educators and health care providers see a crisis, but often feel helpless to address it. 

Emergency rooms and crisis hotlines reported an uptick in youth suicide ideation and attempts in the fall, and many of the stressors leading to this increase have continued into 2021. The California Mental Health Services Oversight & Accountability Commission released findings in October spotlighting the urgent need for statewide support for school-based mental health services amid – and beyond – the COVID-19 pandemic.

The commission report, “Every Young Heart and Mind: Schools as Centers of Wellness,” found that 1 in 6 high school students report having considered suicide in the past year, and that 1 in 3 high school students report feeling chronically sad and hopeless. The report urges the state to move quickly to assist schools in becoming “wellness centers” for students. 

School-based health centers – small, full-service health clinics on school campuses – are one such model and are already responding to the current crises by providing health and mental health services to young people via phone, telehealth and social media. School-based health providers are regularly checking in to ensure that students are not despairing and that they know of resources if they or their friends feel like they cannot cope. 

School health providers – most of whom are working remotely from other clinic sites or home – tell us they are seeing dramatically more suicidal ideation than in years past, and that it is harder to monitor symptoms or identify risks when youth are not physically present in school every day. 

For example, one mother in Fresno had to bring her son to his school’s health center after his friend died by suicide. The mother said her son had been distant and did not want to talk about what had happened. When the clinic evaluated him, they realized he was at grave risk and they were able to refer him to a behavioral health specialist right away. If it had not been for the student’s mother bringing him in, the risk may have gone unnoticed by school and health center staff.

With all the challenges youth are facing, having staff trained to pick up these nuances and get children and teens the care that they need should not be a luxury. Yet, California only has 293 school-based health centers for more than 10,000 public schools. Our state has invested heavily in school mental health in the last two decades, and we are encouraged by additional significant investments proposed in the governor’s budget for 2021-22. 

The California School-Based Health Alliance is partnering with children’s advocates from around the state to co-sponsor Assembly Bill 563, introduced by Assemblymember Marc Berman, a Democrat from Menlo Park, and Assemblymember James Ramos, a Democrat from Highland, that would create an Office of School-Based Health Programs in the California Department of Education. If passed, this legislation would ensure better coordination between siloed health and education departments to support youth through this storm and others to come. 

Much more is needed, including many more school-based health centers for students and communities under greatest stress. But AB 563 and the measures introduced by Gov. Gavin Newsom are part of a good start. California School-Based Health Alliance, our partners, youth, schools and families will continue to build support for the health and well-being of California youth.

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