ACSA EdCal logo.
Association of California School Administrators
Association of California School Administrators
Report: Schools must be centers of student wellness
January 11, 2021
State leaders must take action to address the urgent mental health needs of young people, according to a new report from the California Mental Health Services Oversight and Accountability Commission.
Released in October, the report from the commission’s Schools and Mental Health Subcommittee chronicles what one educator called the “crisis-filled lives” of youth in California — where one in six high school students report having considered suicide in the past year.
The report was being finalized right as the COVID-19 pandemic hit, which only served to deepen the mental health struggles our children face, according to David W. Gordon, Sacramento County Office of Education Superintendent and chair of the mental health commission’s schools subcommittee.
Here, Gordon answers questions about the report’s findings and what K-12 educators can do to support schools as centers of mental wellness.
School leaders have known about student mental health challenges for years — do you think state leaders and the public are becoming more aware of this crisis?
Yes, definitely, and that was one of the major reasons the Mental Health Commission decided to do a report on schools and mental health. I would encourage everyone to take a look at the report called “Every Young Heart and Mind: Schools as Centers of Wellness” because it tries to lay out a blueprint for making schools centers of wellness that are focusing on not just treatment but prevention.
You write that the pre-existing mental health crisis has grown deeper during the pandemic, and at the same time less visible. Have you heard of any creative strategies for finding students with mental health needs during distance learning?
Yes, I give our school districts and county offices a lot of credit for helping reach out to students through any means possible. I know examples are in many counties. Districts have reached out to families through community groups and nonprofits to let families and young people know about hotlines that exist for students potentially contemplating suicide. Many districts have used telehealth and provided counseling through telehealth and referrals to county mental health, and county mental health departments have stepped up as well. Is this solving the problem? No, no it is not, but it’s providing a refuge for many young people in need of help.
Were there any findings or stakeholder stories you heard that stood out to you in this report?
One of the most impactful presentations we heard was from a specialist in early childhood mental health talking about how many of our young people experience extreme adverse events during the 0-5 period, before they even get to school. One of the presenters described a kindergartener who was struggling to learn, and it turned out his family lived in poverty. He experienced extreme housing instability. His mother suffered from postpartum depression, which impaired her ability to build attachment bonds, and by the age of 3 this young man had been exposed to domestic violence, witnessed his father being arrested by police and had been expelled from preschool. So, those are the situations that we need to be able to work hard to head off long before students even get to school. So, that’s the magnitude of this challenge.
You write in the report that schools currently have a “fail first paradigm,” with students often reaching crisis before they get the supports that they need. What are some things that schools could be doing to have a prevention mindset?
Thank you for that question because that’s the heart of the matter. Schools as centers of wellness means we want to not allow young people to fail first. We want to surround them with support from all of the personnel in the school to make sure we’re on the lookout for indications that they may need further support in the form of counseling or work with their family, so they can turn around whatever issues they’re dealing with and become effective learners within the school setting. In addition, as I mentioned in a prior example, schools could be looking down and working with their preschools, with child care programs, to work with families to make sure we’re reaching out to families and their youngsters as early as possible, even before they get to school.
How is mental health connected to some of the disparities we see in the educational experiences of students of color, foster students and LGBTQ students?
It’s absolutely directly connected to these disparities in outcomes and threats for those groups of students. And again, the school as a center of wellness will be designed to make support accessible to those groups in working with the various community and nonprofit groups that support them. But more than that, making sure school staff are well trained and oriented to the origins of a lot of those disparities and the status of students. And our goal there is to reduce those disparities, but most of all to make sure we’re being sensitive to the need to work with those students in ways that are highly supportive within the school setting.
As the report states, there are tremendous benefits to having youth-led mental health initiatives. What are some ways schools can have their students lead mental health efforts on campus?
I’ll say up front we have missed the boat by not leaning more on our young people to help us understand their needs. Just here in Sacramento County alone — and I know this is going on in many other counties — we are developing a plan for a Youth Mental Health Advisory Board to work with the local mental health system and the board of supervisors. We are reaching out to young people to serve as peer mentors, young people from high schools working with middle school students, young people who are in college or in the workforce, working with high school students. And most of all we’re listening. We’re doing outreach and focus groups on a regular basis in our own school system and mental health on campus. Many of our young people are forming clubs or teams. We must, as we look forward, give our students more opportunity not just to participate but to lead in terms of designing our mental health efforts.
What can California school administrators at the local level do to make schools centers of mental wellness?
Two or three priorities come to mind. Number one, many counties in many districts are now working very closely with their county mental health systems. This is important because that’s the source of support particularly for our neediest families who are part of the Medi-Cal system, and many counties have, in fact, initiated or begun to initiate collaborative projects to make mental health services more accessible at the school site level, or in the vicinity of schools.
Secondly, it’s crucial that we have sustainable funding for this work. Unfortunately, school level support in the form of counselors and school social workers often comes and goes with budget crises. We need to make sure this is a hard-and-fast priority. Local county mental health departments can augment school level services. Here in Sacramento, we’re launching an initiative to have a clinician funded by the Medi-Cal system posted at, or in the vicinity of, every one of our schools in the county — and that’s 300 to 400 schools. So far, we’ve lived off of a lot of one-time grants, and that isn’t going to do it because when the grant goes away, the needs of our kids don’t go away. And in fact, they’re expanding. So, I would encourage school administrators to work with their local county mental health agencies to build that collaboration and encourage that support.
Contact Us

© 2020 Association of California School Administrators