Student mental health is suffering, watchdog says

12/02/2020

Students in Marin are suffering from a mental health crisis, and the Shoreline Unified School District is trailing its counterparts in addressing the issue, according to a report published by the Marin County Civil Grand Jury in October. 

The 19-person watchdog group found that educators and mental health professionals agree: Students are increasingly prone to anxiety, suicidal thoughts and chronic feelings of hopelessness, and the Covid-19 pandemic is exacerbating their troubles. At least four Marin students have taken their own lives since 2017. Although an admirable effort to help these young people is underway, there is not enough money to fund a wide enough reach. A concentrated community effort to support wellness is needed.

The report looks at what each of Marin’s eight high schools is doing to support mental health needs. The Tamalpais Union High School District is forging the way. The district has wellness centers at all three of its high schools, overseen by a wellness coordinator who is a licensed therapist and supported by an outreach specialist who holds a bachelor’s degree. The centers include spaces where students can drop in, comfortable furniture, pillows and blankets, art supplies and hot tea. They are stocked with pamphlets about issues from anxiety to safe sex, and extra rooms are available for group meetings and counseling. 

At Novato High School, administrators looked at wellness centers in the Tamalpais district and concluded that they were beyond their means: The program costs $700,000 a year to staff, paid largely by donations to the school’s foundation. Instead, Novato educators created a space shared by the wellness and restorative practices coordinator, who is funded by grants and the parent-teacher-student association. The school doesn’t call its space a wellness center because it wants to think of itself as a wellness campus; students work as receptionists, inviting classmates to come in and relax. 

San Rafael High School also has a wellness center, though it is not staffed, and administrators are hoping to create a physical space at Terra Linda High School this month.

The report has one sentence about Tomales High School's wellness center, because there isn’t much to say: Shoreline includes “develop the student wellness center” in its district goals document for 2019 to 2024. Tomales is by far the smallest high school in Marin, with 138 students, and 45 percent of its students are socio-economically disadvantaged. With 1,000 fewer students than the next smallest high school, Tomales receives the most funding per student but has the smallest total budget.

Superintendent Bob Raines said one of the district’s frustrations with developing a student wellness center at the high school has been finding a partner. Although the Coastal Health Alliance has supported the district in many projects, the clinic did not have the additional bandwidth or personnel to support a center. Mr. Raines is hopeful the district can revive the conversation once the Petaluma Health Center fully integrated the Coastal Health Alliance.

The student wellness advisory committee that aims to develop a wellness center hasn’t met this year because energy was diverted to distance learning and developing Covid-19 protocols. Next year, the committee plans to meet bimonthly, Mr. Raines said.

In the meantime, the high school is leaning on its existing staff: Rachael Kobe, a counselor who also supports students academically and with college and career readiness, and Megan Schweitz, the Coastal Health Alliance’s school-based mental health counselor who works with students at West Marin and Tomales High Schools for four days a week.

Ms. Schweitz has been challenged by the shift to distance learning, as it has become harder to engage with her students. Last year, teachers referred nearly 40 students to her; this year, she has been referred for one-on-one meetings with just 15 students. She explained that the usual spontaneous moments, like finding a kid crying in the bathroom, are nonexistent. Instead, students must want to reach out for help. 

Of the 15 high school students referred to Ms. Schweitz, eight meet regularly with her. She can’t reach the other half, despite repeated emails and calls home.

“The engagement has been really hard because kids don’t want to go to another Zoom class when they’ve been on Zoom all day long,” she said. “As clinicians and social workers, we can only do as much as clients are willing to do, and that’s the hard part. We’re doing our best to reach out, but it’s up to parents and students what help they want to get.”

Students fall into three tiers of support. The first tier comprises school-wide interventions for all students, like observing Suicide Prevention Month each September. Tier two is for about 15 percent of students who need more support, often in the form of group counseling. The 5 percent of students who receive one-on-one counseling are considered tier three, having chronic and intensive behavior challenges. Before students reach this point, therapists try to intervene at tier two.

As part of that level of support, Ms. Schweitz is preparing to launch a wellness group at the high school when students return to in-person learning. The group will practice mindfulness and yoga, with the goal of giving students more self-control, self-awareness and time management and reflective processing skills.

“Just having those raw conversations with teenagers like, ‘Hey, what makes you feel good? Do you do that every day, and if not, why aren’t you?’” Ms. Schweitz said.

With the isolation of distance learning deepening stress, anxiety and depression already present before the pandemic, healing will take time. Even when students do return to campus, they won’t be able to hug their friends, and everyone will be wearing a face covering.

The grand jury recognized that not all districts have the resources to hire more therapists and create functioning wellness centers. Instead, the report places responsibility on the Marin County Office of Education, recommending the office employ a full-time therapist to coordinate wellness services, designate staff to connect schools with community agencies that can provide them with mental-health services, and expand teacher and staff training and parent education around mental-health issues.

“Educators have shown great initiative and creativity in trying to address the mental health needs of their students, from finding ways to add therapists to adopting measures to reduce the need for therapists,” the jury wrote. “Their work is laudable, but districts also need assistance to meet this challenge—and the school districts with fewer financial resources often have more students with unmet needs.”