Schools in San Jose see increased need for mental health services

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The COVID-19 pandemic has left an astonishing level of young people and teenagers with emotional issues who have migrated from homes to schools in San Jose.

The crisis has sent school administrators scrambling to find mental health professionals to deal with student disengagement, chronic absenteeism, discipline issues and the tragic loss of students to suicide. Yet it is in this same environment that students are 10 to 21 times more likely to seek emotional support, according to the Santa Clara County Office of Education.

About 253,625 students enrolled in public schools in Santa Clara County in the 2020-21 school year, according to Ed-data.org.

Imee Almazan, director of social and emotional learning for the Alum Rock Union School District, said there is always a great need for more support in schools across the district.

“School counselors frequently respond to crises, students present more complex cases, and parents are also turning to schools to connect their students and themselves to resources,” Almazan told San José Spotlight.

The East Side Union High School District saw its number of referrals for therapy double to 2,243 at the end of December, Superintendent Glenn Vander Zee said, noting the district needed additional funds to hire more workers. social.

The school district has 28 social workers, 11 of whom were hired this year. The district also partners with community mental health centers for additional services.

A wellness area at Santa Teresa High School offers students a relaxed environment to work on their emotions. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

At Santa Teresa High School, students can relax in a wellness center, which Michelle Sanchez says is necessary in all high schools.

“School can be very stressful and overwhelming at times,” she said. “School plays a huge role in mental health.”

Rachel Ghezzi, a social worker at Santa Teresa High School, said the wellness center provides students with a haven when they feel anxious or depressed. A place where they know they are not alone. The number of students using school mental health services has doubled from 10% to almost 20% during the pandemic, she said.

“The need is always higher than what they can provide,” she said. This year, the school has two full-time social workers. It also has interns from the Bill Wilson Center and San Jose State University.

The pandemic has taken a toll on student well-being, county superintendent of schools and columnist Mary Ann Dewan told San Jose Spotlight.

“Young people greatly appreciate the wellness approach and the ability to be able to come before or after school,” she said. “Sometimes they just need a moment of mindfulness or someone to talk to.”

Santa Teresa High School social worker Rachel Ghezzi said the number of students using the school’s mental health services has doubled during the pandemic. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

The State is mobilizing to help

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond said in a statement that students have experienced extreme levels of depression during the pandemic. He said the state, home to 6 million college students, only has enough mental health professionals to serve 30% of those in need.

State Sen. Dave Cortese told San Jose Spotlight the need is irrelevant.

“We are at risk of being at epidemic levels of mental health problems among our young and adult population,” he said.

A $40 million-a-year Santa Clara County Schools-Linked Services program launched by Cortese connects students and families to mental health counseling, case management and health services county public service in 200 schools in 15 school districts. Cortese also helped expand a county-school mental health partnership grant program by $205 million.

Hilaria Bauer, superintendent of the Alum Rock Union School District, said she’s glad the state is taking an interest in this area of ​​education and it’s long overdue.

“We had to invest in counseling services out of sheer survival,” she told San José Spotlight. “We must serve, live and honor what people have gone through.”

Bauer said the pandemic has exacerbated the need for counseling services. She said the district was badly affected by the pandemic, with children losing their parents and their homes.

Currently, the school district has 18 full-time counselors and 12 interns, many from San Jose State University. Of these, 10 were recently added through pandemic-related government funding. School counselors also work with nonprofit community organizations to help students and employees who are grieving and losing.

“Otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to continue our studies,” Bauer said. “The need is so great.”

The school district received a grant from the Santa Clara County Office of Education for a wellness center in November. Difficulties in finding workers delayed its opening.

Currently, the San Jose Unified School District has 77 full-time licensed counselors and child protection advocates. It also contracts with community mental health service agencies across the county.

Spokeswoman Jennifer Maddox said the district wants students to feel safe.

“Certainly having mental health support available is a big part of it,” Maddox told San Jose Spotlight.

The school district currently has a wellness center at Pioneer High School and is looking to add more. Maddox said sometimes students need a place they can go to calm down, breathe and be heard, which allows them to be productive in class.

But not all students have their needs met. Sometimes mental health stigma gets in the way, she says.

“We only know about students who are referred by a teacher or parent or who ask for help,” Maddox said. “We have no way of knowing how many students are struggling.”

Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected]

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