Over the past several years — and especially since the start of the pandemic — local school districts have recognized the importance of students’ mental wellbeing and are working to offer resources in addressing behavioral health concerns.
“Just like we feed kids because hungry kids don't learn well, we need to take care of kids’ mental health and their physical health, because if they're not feeling well, they're not going to learn well either,” said Denair Unified Superintendent Terry Metzger.
To address the needs of Denair families, the district has launched a tele-health service where students can connect with clinicians and receive physical and behavioral health care.
Legacy Health Endowment helped connected Denair Unified with Hazel Health to provide these services. To utilize the service a student has to have a parent or guardian sign a consent form, which is available digitally or physically. A student can either choose to use the service at school or at home. At school the students are set up with an iPad, and the students can connect to a doctor, counselor or therapist through video chat.
“Our main idea is that we want the school to be the hub where students get services…They come here for food; they come here for their education. They come here for so many things. So, we want to empower the districts with an extra set of resources,” said Hazel Health Representative Brian Massey.
If a school counselor thinks there is a need for mental health support, they can refer a student to Hazel, which will do a teletherapy assessment with a licensed clinical social worker and marriage family therapist. Then they'll get plugged into a program of teletherapy and do an assessment to diagnosis the student. Hazel will work to understand the severity of the situation and then set up the student with course of treatment. If a student needs long term services, Hazel will find appropriate resources within the community to hand them off to.
According to Metzger, students in grades 6-12 take a two-hour mental health workshop and they have revealed students need these resources.
“The information that we're getting from kids afterwards is startling. The kids are very worried; they're very anxious and they're not motivated. They are saying that for themselves that they're feeling depressed…just the other world has been turned upside down,” she said. “I think part of the problem is that, especially over the summer, we all have these high hopes that everything was going to be more normal this year. Then we got back to school and it's been anything but normal; in some ways it's been harder than last year.”
Turlock Unified School District also provides resources to students for addressing mental health concerns. TUSD’s CARE Program is a team comprised of mental health clinicians, graduate school interns and school counselors. Psychologists and behavioral analysts contribute to this work, as well. TUSD also partners with community agencies, including Jessica’s House, Tree House Club and Prodigal Sons and Daughters to further serve students who are experiencing grief, loss or substance abuse issues.
“CARE Program clinicians are meeting with members of each school’s crisis response team to share information on roles, evidence-based strategies and best practices to follow when a student demonstrates behaviors that indicate they may be at risk of harming themselves or others. Additionally, technology supports these efforts through filters and security features that notify administrators of potential risk,” said Assistant Superintendent of Educational Services Heidi Lawler. “Most importantly, TUSD staff members develop positive relationships and serve as those trusted adults who recognize changes in student behaviors and share concerns with mental health professionals and administrators at their schools.”
The CARE Program uses the Columbia-Suicide Severity Rating Scale, which was developed by Columbia University to determine if a student is in danger of harming themselves. The scale is used by many schools and uses terminology that is researched to get the most honest response from students. One important thing family or friends can do is reach out if they see a loved one is behaving differently.
“When you do enquire, not only does it reduce the stress, but it gives your friend permission to share what's going on with them in a way they get that you're not going to freak out,” said Student Support Clinician Jennifer Carlsen.
Carlsen believes the stigma is changing regarding mental health and students are more willing to reach out than previous generations.
“I feel like it is absolutely changing. I think maybe people who are serving these youth don't realize how much it's changed. I think young people are much more willing to have that conversation. And they realize mental health and physical health are the same thing,” she said. “Young people talk about mental health in a much healthier way.”
For more information on these resources, families can visit my.hazel.co/denairusd and sites.google.com/turlockusd.org/careprogram/home.