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Flush With Aid, Most Districts Aren’t Spending On Mental Health Resources

A building in the San Marcos Unified School District is shown in this undated photo. The district reported spending $2.5 million in coronavirus aid funds on crisis counseling. But it turns out the district used that money to pay existing staff, not to invest in new resources.
Jamie Scott Lytle / Voice of San Diego
A building in the San Marcos Unified School District is shown in this undated photo. The district reported spending $2.5 million in coronavirus aid funds on crisis counseling. But it turns out the district used that money to pay existing staff, not to invest in new resources.
After more than a year of distanced learning and social isolation from face to face interactions more students are in need of emotional support and psychological help. The need was underscored when an San Marcos High School Student died by suicide last month.

In April, a San Marcos High School student died by suicide and now mental health professionals are urging San Marcos and other districts to invest in counseling and other services with the influx of cash they’re getting from the state and federal government.

For now, there’s no indication they are.

Voice of San Diego found that schools leaders are relying on mental health and social-emotional training from the County Office of Education and are working with local community groups, but not spending more money on crisis counseling despite receiving millions of dollars in coronavirus relief funding.

Suicide Prevention Help

If you are having thoughts of suicide, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255 or the San Diego Access and Crisis Line at (888) 724-7240.

Other resources are available here.

Psychologists, counselors and county education staff told Voice of San Diego that students who are facing anxiety and depression and problems with socialization need extra support right now. They believe additional psychological resources like crisis counseling and social emotional learning – curriculum that fuses social awareness, relationship skills, managing stress, setting goals and other life skills with traditional classroom academics – can save kids from long-lasting psychological effects of the pandemic.

The state and federal governments have given $296 million to 161 public K-12 San Diego County school districts and charter schools to help deal with the virus’ impact, according to the California Department of Finance. More is on the way. Both the state and federal governments have encouraged districts to spend it and other coronavirus funds on mental health services for students, but schools are given wide latitude in how they can spend it. Many have decided to spend it on existing employees.

At first glance, San Marcos Unified appeared to be an outlier on this front – a district that was making new investments in counseling for students. The district reported spending nearly $2.5 million in coronavirus relief money on crisis counseling. But it turns out, that money didn’t go toward hiring any new support staff. San Marcos Unified is spending the same amount of money on counseling services it did before the pandemic. The district spent the money on existing salaries and benefits for about 30 full-time counselors and a portion of the salaries and benefits for 25 psychologists, 10 social workers and eight nurses, said Michael Taylor, the assistant superintendent of business services.

It was “strictly an accounting transition” and doesn’t mean there are more social and emotional problems at San Marcos than any other district, Taylor said. The district is working in partnership with many community groups and nonprofit organizations to address student wellness, said district spokeswoman Jennifer Machado, but she couldn’t say whether the district has any official contracts with those groups.

California schools will receive more than $35.7 billion in state and federal pandemic funding over the next few months to pay for services like mental health counseling and tutoring for students if they choose. President Joe Biden’s budget proposal released in April includes another $1 billion to add nurses and mental health services in public schools. Schools are still figuring out how to spend all the unprecedented cash.

Districts should take the leap and partner with local nonprofits and behavioral health organizations to address the need by using the temporary funding they’re getting from the state and federal government, Dr. Mark Chenven, a local psychiatrist for children and adolescents and the executive director of social service organization Vista Hill, told Voice of San Diego. They should bring therapists and nonprofits in the mental health space into schools who can help train staff to identify warning signs and intervene early when students are having a difficult time, he said.

Chenven said kids who had depression or anxiety before the pandemic are more likely to be in a worse place than they were before the pandemic and kids with developmental and special needs are at even worse of a risk. Some kids are doing better than others away from school because they’re away from peer pressure, bullying and substance and drug abuse that happens when children and teenagers gather, Chenven said.

“It’s not a total doom and gloom. Not every teenager is depressed,” he said.

If students have the proper technology, resources and family support for at-home learning, they’re more likely to succeed and use the time at home to develop on their own and spend time with their families.

While schools are a great place for mental health and psychological intervention — they’re often the first place that families go when they need help with social services — they’re not necessarily the best place for psychoanalysis, he said. But investment in outreach in schools can bridge the gaps for families who aren’t comfortable going to a medical professional for help.

When there are more mental health professionals who identify with marginalized students in schools, it is easier it is to bridge the gap between families who aren’t comfortable asking for those services, said Karlie Wong, a lead case manager who works with kids at local behavioral health company Club XCite. Machado, the spokeswoman for San Marcos Unified, said students in the district, where a majority of students are Latino, have access to Latino school counselors and others from a variety of backgrounds.

A lot of trauma and mental health issues aren’t coming to the surface right now because parents don’t think to seek out mental health resources, students aren’t coming forward or it’s harder for teachers to pick up on them during distance learning or when they only see them in person for part of the week, Wong said.

Wong used to work at King-Chavez High School and San Diego Virtual School as a high school counselor but was laid off twice due to funding cuts. She said she appreciates that schools are now seeing the need to give space to mental health resources and urges them to invest in counselors.

“Unfortunately, sometimes it takes something pretty extreme or drastic to cause people to see the need,” she said.

The San Diego County Office of Education has a team dedicated to mental health and wellness of school staff, students and parents that is intended “to promote positive school climate practices and policies and systems that are trauma sensitive, resiliency building and inclusive” across the region’s 43 school districts and are encouraging leaders to focus on anxiety, connectivity, support and enhancing suicide prevention efforts as schools reopen, said Heather Neumor, a program specialist on the Student Wellness and Positive School Climate team at the County Office of Education.

“Every school will tell you they don’t have enough money for counseling and support staff, and I think that will always be the case. But what we can do is train on the early warning signs and what should they be looking out for,” Neumor said.

I asked Machado what crisis counseling looks like in San Marcos. She said staff and counseling are getting training on trauma-informed care and mental health aid, the crisis response team is mobilizing to support schools, social workers are creating social-emotional activities and lessons and student wellness websites, the district is offering parents workshops on how to support student well-being and staff are checking in on students virtually and at-home and following up with them after a crisis.

On April 15, Adam Dawson, the principal of San Marcos High, wrote in a letter to parents that the death of a student there “is sure to raise many emotions, concerns, and questions for our entire school, especially our students.” He said the district would meet with students individually and in groups to offer support and advised parents to check in with their children to be aware of the primary warning signs of a child in crisis.

Voice of San Diego is a nonprofit news organization.
Voice of San Diego is a nonprofit news organization.

Corrected:
Kayla Jimenez is a reporter for Voice of San Diego. She writes about communities, politics and regional issues in North County. Kayla can be reached at kayla.jimenez@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5669.