San Jose schools are link to student mental health services
Santa Teresa High School social worker Alonso Avalos is one of the school's two full-time counselors. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

The COVID-19 pandemic has left an astounding level of youth and teens with emotional problems that have migrated from homes into San Jose schools.

The crisis has sent school administrators scrambling to find mental health care professionals to deal with student disengagement, chronic absenteeism, disciplinary problems and the tragic loss of students by suicide. Yet, it’s this same environment where students are 10 to 21 times more likely to seek out emotional support, according to the Santa Clara County Office of Education.

Approximately 253,625 students enrolled in Santa Clara County public schools during the 2020-21 school year, according to Ed-data.org.

Imee Almazan, director of social and emotional learning for Alum Rock Union School District, said there continues to be a high need for more support within district schools.

“School counselors are responding to crises frequently, students are presenting with more complex cases and parents are also turning to schools to connect their students, as well as themselves to resources,” Almazan told San José Spotlight.

East Side Union High School District saw its number of referrals for therapy double to 2,243 by the end of December, said Superintendent Glenn Vander Zee, noting the district needs additional dollars to hire more social workers.

The school district has 28 social workers, 11 who were hired this year. The district also partners with community-based mental health centers for additional services.

A wellness space at Santa Teresa High School gives students a relaxed environment to work through their emotions. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

At Santa Teresa High School, students can unwind in a wellness center, which student Michelle Sanchez said is needed at every high school.

“School sometimes can be very stressful and overwhelming,” she said. “School plays a huge factor in mental health.”

Rachel Ghezzi, a social worker at Santa Teresa High School, said the wellness center provides students a haven when they feel anxious or depressed. A place where they know they’re not alone. The number of students using the school’s mental health services doubled from 10% to almost 20% during the pandemic, she said.

“The need is always higher than what they can provide,” she said. This year, the school has two full-time social workers. It also has interns from Bill Wilson Center and San Jose State University.

The pandemic has taken a toll on students’ well-being, county Superintendent of Schools and columnist Mary Ann Dewan told San José Spotlight.

“Youth highly value the wellness approach and the ability of being able to drop in before or after school,” she said. “Sometimes they just need a mindfulness moment or somebody to talk to.”

Santa Teresa High School social worker Rachel Ghezzi said the number of students using the school’s mental health services doubled during the pandemic. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

State steps up to help

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond said in a statement students experienced extreme levels of depression during the pandemic. He said the state, home to 6 million students, only has enough mental health professionals to serve 30% of those in need.

State Sen. Dave Cortese told San José Spotlight the need is off the charts.

“We’re at risk of being at epidemic levels of mental health issues among our youth and adult population,” he said.

A Santa Clara County $40-million-a-year school linked services program pioneered by Cortese connects students and families to county mental health counseling, case management and public health services at 200 schools across 15 school districts. Cortese also helped expand a grant program for mental health partnerships between counties and schools by $205 million.

Hilaria Bauer, superintendent of Alum Rock Union School District, said she’s happy the state is interested in this area of education and it’s long overdue.

“We have had to invest in counseling services out of sheer survival,” she told San José Spotlight. “We have to serve, live and honor what people have gone through.”

Bauer said the pandemic exacerbated the need for counseling services. She said the district was severely affected by the pandemic with children losing their parents and homes.

Currently, the school district has 18 full-time counselors and 12 interns, many from San Jose State University. Of these, 10 were recently added through pandemic-related government funding. School counselors also collaborate with community nonprofits to assist students and employees with grief and loss.

“Otherwise, we wouldn’t have been able to continue schooling,” Bauer said. “The need is so great.”

The school district received a grant from the Santa Clara County Office of Education for a wellness center in November. Difficulties in finding workers have delayed its opening.

Currently, San Jose Unified School District has 77 full-time credentialed counselors and child welfare advocates. It also contracts with community mental health service agencies through the county.

Spokesperson Jennifer Maddox said the district wants students to feel like they’re in a safe place.

“Certainly having mental health support available is a big part,” Maddox told San José Spotlight.

The school district currently has one wellness center at Pioneer High School and is looking to add more. Maddox said sometimes students need a place they can go to calm down, take a breath and be heard, allowing them to be productive in the classroom.

But not all students are having their needs met. Sometimes the stigma of mental health gets in the way, she said.

“We only know the students that get referred by a teacher or parent or ask for help,” Maddox said. “We don’t have any way of knowing how many students out there are struggling.”

Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected]

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