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July 30, 2021

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Student Mental Health Guest Blog post by Assemblymember James C. Ramos

By Assemblymember James C. Ramos

Students begin going back to schools in August. For many, it will be the first time in more than a year that they have stepped into their classrooms. Happy as their return may be, they will face new challenges.

For adults and children, the pandemic created issues of anxiety, isolation and grief. Children, adolescents and young adults also faced the loss of the support systems they relied upon at their campuses.

For too many children and teens, school life provides a refuge, and COVID-19 has removed this protected zone. Suicide is already the second leading cause of death among young people ages 15 to 24 in the U.S. A nationwide survey found in 2015 that one in six high school students reported they seriously considered suicide during the previous year, and more than one in 12 reported attempting it.

Yet even prior to the California school districts were lacking the staff and training needed to help students with mental health issues. Last September, the state auditor released a report evaluating the ability of school authorities to address the mental health needs of their students. The review was undertaken at the request of Assemblymembers Marc Berman (D-Menlo Park), Rudy Salas, Patrick O’Donnell and me.

The state auditor’s assessment about existing resources and policies for our children was a loud and clear call to action. It will serve to guide policymakers about what we need to do to help save the lives of our children.

The audit found that from 2009 to 2018, the number of youth suicides increased by 15 percent statewide and self-harm incidents increased by 50 percent. No school sampled by the auditor reported employing the recommended number of school counselors, nurses, social workers, or psychologists. Further, 25 percent of schools did not employ a single mental health professional, and none of the six schools that were reviewed had adopted adequate youth suicide prevention policies or training. The auditor recommended that schools employ more mental health professionals, invest in school-based health centers, and draw down federal reimbursement funds to provide mental health resources to students.

California is not alone. In July, ABC News reported that while the National Association of School Psychologists recommends a ratio of no more than 500 students per school psychologist. In the 2019-2020 school year, the national ratio was estimated to be more than double, and only one state met the recommended ratio. ABC News also cited a 2019 ACLU report revealing that most states failed to meet a recommended ratio of 250 students per social worker and counselor.

The pandemic exposed a variety of existing social needs such as greater access to health care, housing, broadband services, and even food – and mental health care. These gaps were exacerbated in communities already suffering from inequities.

This year, funding at both the state and federal levels for student mental health services is available, and both policy makers and educators appear to recognize the need for counselors, psychologists, and staff training. However, as services increase we must insure that future attention and funding to this issue remain high.

In February 2020 I introduced a measure to create the Office of Suicide Prevention. It was signed into law because of the active support of countless mental health providers, and this year’s budget allocates ongoing annual funding of approximately $2.7 million.

The Office of Suicide Prevention is charged with:

• Providing strategic guidance to statewide and regional partners regarding best prevention practices;

• Focusing resources on the highest risk groups such as youth, Native American youth, older adults, veterans and LGBTQ persons;

• Conducting state evaluations of regional and state suicide prevention policies;

• Reviewing data to identify opportunities to reduce suicide, including documenting aborted suicide attempts and crisis service interventions; and

• Marshalling the insights and energy of medical professionals, scientists, public health experts and others to address the crisis.

I hope these new resources help make the new academic year a brighter one for our kids and that we can help them thrive and succeed. Thank you!

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