Dewan: The growing youth mental health crisis
Bret Harte Middle School in the San Jose Unified School District. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

Schools across the country are bracing for the fourth wave of COVID-19 fueled by the omicron variant, while maintaining a commitment to keep school campuses open with in-person learning.

Disruptions to student attendance and in-person learning have been increasing in recent years. Certainly, the COVID-19 pandemic was and continues to be a major reason for this, but there are other reasons including the mental health and wellness needs of youth, climate change driven crises such as fires and threats to school safety.

This past week, school administrators, parents and communities wrestled with a troubling, nationwide TikTok challenge that appeared to encourage students to make false bomb threats and school shooting phone calls. As the safety of students and staff is everyone’s top priority, administrators found themselves working with local law enforcement to assess the credibility of these threats and to educate youth about the risks of making false threats.

Threatening a school, whether credible or not, is a serious matter and is against the law. It is a violation of California Education Code, California Penal Code and school policies and could result in arrest by local law enforcement and/or suspension or expulsion from school.

These threats, even if found not to be credible, cause a great deal of stress and anxiety for students, families and staff. Some schools closed and some parents kept their children at home due to fear caused by these threats, causing lost instruction in Santa Clara County schools.

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued an advisory last week calling for a whole-of-society effort to mitigate the mental health impacts of the pandemic, to address longstanding challenges and to prevent future mental health challenges. His advisory outlines important steps all of us can take to combat the growing youth mental health crisis.

Dr. Murthy recommends an expansion of the school-based mental health workforce and urges the investment of federal, state and local resources to hire and train additional staff, including school counselors, nurses, social workers and school psychologists. He noted a lack of school counselors makes it harder to support children experiencing mental health challenges.

School-based mental health services significantly reduce school disciplinary action, referrals into the criminal justice system and school drop-out rates. When schools have the resources to provide mental health prevention and early intervention, youth experience improvements in their overall health and well-being and in their academic performance.

When social emotional learning is incorporated into the classroom and school sites have embedded mental health services available to students, schools see increased academic performance and higher graduation and attendance rates. Researchers and educators recognize that school-based health and mental health services are linked to better child behavior in school, reduced emergency department usage by children and lower rates of teen births.

Dr. Murthy’s advisory includes relevant recommendations and further urges investment in children and youth at school by providing resources and technical assistance to strengthen school-based mental health programs, improving education about mental health, increasing screening of students for mental health concerns, investing in additional staff to support student mental health needs and improving care coordination.

Increased screening is key to prevention, early intervention and to support integration of screening and treatment into primary care. Expanded Pediatric Mental Health Care Access programs and Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) screenings give primary care providers teleconsultations, training, technical assistance and care coordination to support diagnosis, treatment and referral for children with mental health and substance use needs. California recently enacted a law that will significantly expand coverage for ACEs screening.

Dr. Murthy recommends governments provide financial resources for school-based mental health services. Santa Clara County school leaders, in partnership with local county government, the School Linked Services program, community-based organizations, and with recent state and federal funding for mental health and wellness, are making strides.

Expanded and sustained investments in early learning and childcare and quality, culturally relevant school-based mental health and wellness services are needed to combat the youth mental health crisis and contribute to the overall health and well-being of children.

San José Spotlight columnist Mary Ann Dewan is the superintendent of schools for Santa Clara County. She has more than 33 years of experience in the field of education. Her columns appear every third Monday of the month.

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