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As public awareness and understanding of student mental health and wellness grows, state policy leaders have opportunities to ensure that schools can access resources and support to identify and address these needs early.

Headshot of Laura Wasco

Laura Wasco

And time is critical — rates of depression, stress and suicide attempts by students are rising and school leaders report student mental health issues as growing and serious concerns.

In our work as advocates for districts and county superintendents, we hear from education leaders across California a constant refrain of their need for greater capacity and resources to address student mental health and wellness. The impact on students and their families of recent wildfires and the resulting devastation have heightened these concerns.

While schools’ efforts over the last several years in building multi-tiered systems of support with inclusive behavior and social-emotional supports have made a dent in these concerns, there is more the state can do to strengthen local efforts.

Headshot of Jeff Frost

Jeff Frost

Schools want the tools and practices to identify and understand mental health and wellness and ensure students receive appropriate services. They also have a critical need for funding these efforts.

One simple approach would pick up on and further Governor Newsom’s welcome proposal in his budget to “pursue policy changes to improve coordination between the Department of Health Care Services and school districts to better leverage available federal funding for medically related special education.”

What we see and hear is the frustration of school leaders about lack of access to tools and funding to help students deal with mental health issues and promote wellness — especially for the most vulnerable children.

In California, county behavioral health departments are required to provide medically necessary mental health services to Medi-Cal eligible children and schools to provide the educationally necessary services. Unfortunately, these county departments are not required to work with schools — the very entities that serve more than 6 million of our state’s children, 60 percent of whom are in low-income families.

Schools are directly connected to children who, day in and day out, are on school sites and present in classrooms. Schools need to have the services, skills and resources to identify, refer and if necessary, to intervene early.

An ongoing challenge has been ensuring that school districts have opportunities to participate in programs and access to available funding for student mental health services. Too few county behavioral health departments have collaborative relationships with school districts to provide these critical services and they are too often not working in schools — where children and young people are present.

To address this situation, the governor’s proposal should be expanded to add steps that promote collaboration and allow schools to access and implement federal funding for a comprehensive array of prevention, diagnostic and treatment services for low-income infants, children and adolescents under age 21, including mental health services. Schools may not have the professional expertise to deliver all these services, but their constant interaction with children and families makes them a prime access point.

The Legislature and executive branch have can make this happen. While past legislative efforts have not been successful, changes in leadership, including the governor’s appointment of a state surgeon general with expertise in childhood screenings, make us optimistic about another try in 2019.

Here’s what should be done:

  • Enact legislation to amend state law to require county behavioral health departments to enter agreements with local educational agencies and allow schools to access the federal funding through the county mental health plans by providing services. This isn’t just our recommendation, in 2016 the state auditor made this very suggestion.
  • Take action to amend California’s State Medi-Cal Plan to designate education agencies and Special Education Local Plan Areas as eligible providers for this program. This action is especially timely. California’s current plan, called a 1951 (b) Managed Care Waiver, authorizes only county mental health plans to administer these funds and is authorized for a five-year period ending June 30, 2020. California will need to submit a 1915 (b) waiver to the Federal Government before that date.

These steps sound procedural and bureaucratic — even to us. But they would make a difference in schools and in the lives of children and families. State leaders must work together to be successful.

•••

Jeff Frost is chairman and Laura Wasco is legislative director at the Ball/Frost Group, LLC, which provides legislative and policy consulting services to education associations, nonprofits, school districts and county offices of education.

The opinions expressed in this commentary represent those of the author. EdSource welcomes commentaries representing diverse points of view. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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  1. Ann Abajian 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    Learn4Life applauds Laura Wasco and Jeff Frost on their recent piece that calls for more student mental health and wellness resources in schools. At Learn4Life, we have implemented a trauma-informed approach to learning and provide services and resources to help students deal with emotional and mental wellbeing. Learn4Life is a dropout recovery program that helps students get a diploma and job training for free and focuses on at-risk students, most of whom suffer from some … Read More

    Learn4Life applauds Laura Wasco and Jeff Frost on their recent piece that calls for more student mental health and wellness resources in schools. At Learn4Life, we have implemented a trauma-informed approach to learning and provide services and resources to help students deal with emotional and mental wellbeing. Learn4Life is a dropout recovery program that helps students get a diploma and job training for free and focuses on at-risk students, most of whom suffer from some kind of trauma. Please watch this video on our trauma-informed model to hear students’ stories and how a trauma-informed approach has helped them become better students: https://youtu.be/TH4Nmsf2c2Q

  2. el 1 month ago1 month ago

    There are two changes that I think would be enormously helpful. First, absolutely we need to have providers able to meet with kids at the school site. The practical difficulty of getting children to a once a week (say) session with a counselor between the hours of 3-5pm is substantial for everyone, and having kids who are vulnerable miss school for travel time, even if parents can arrange it, is unhelpful. For urban areas this is … Read More

    There are two changes that I think would be enormously helpful.

    First, absolutely we need to have providers able to meet with kids at the school site. The practical difficulty of getting children to a once a week (say) session with a counselor between the hours of 3-5pm is substantial for everyone, and having kids who are vulnerable miss school for travel time, even if parents can arrange it, is unhelpful. For urban areas this is bad enough, but for rural areas, often provider offices are an hour or even more from the school site. Schools usually have the facilities to make it work and providers can travel more easily than kids.

    Second is that limiting the problem to Medi-Cal eligible kids misses a lot of kids who need some assistance. Even kids who have private insurance for mental health services often can’t access them because of distance or availability. Schools are left holding the bag for these kids when they struggle.