Mental Health Legislation Responds to Pandemic

First published in the Oct. 30 print issue of the Burbank Leader.

More than a year of distance learning took a toll on students and educators after schools shut down in March 2020 to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and California is committed to helping them rebound mentally and emotionally.
Gov. Gavin Newsom recently signed a $123.9 billion, 22-bill package to develop mental and behavioral health support as well as expand broadband access — a lack of which proved problematic for some Californians during distance learning. The historic package represents the highest per-pupil funding in history, according to the governor’s office.
“We’re implementing the historic, transformative measures needed to help support our students’ health and well-being, bridge the digital divide with improved access to broadband and expand educational opportunities for future generations,” Newsom said in a statement.
Two of the 22 bills were authored by state Sen. Anthony Portantino of La Cañada Flintridge, long a proponent of mental health and youth services. Portantino represents the 25th State Senate District, which includes Burbank.
Senate Bill 14 is designed to ensure that students can receive an excused absence for behavioral health concerns and that teachers, staff and pupils receive training on “how to recognize, appropriately respond and seek help for mental health concerns.”
Senate Bill 224 requires schools to include mental health content in their existing health education courses for middle and high school students.
“California is in the midst of a youth behavioral health crisis exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Portantino said in a statement. “Although the bills don’t nearly go as far as they should, this is an important step forward. We need to keep these critical policies moving forward and end the stigma surrounding the discussion of mental health. Mental health education and training is one of the best ways to increase awareness and empower students to seek help.”
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, nearly 1 in 3 California high school students surveyed reported feeling sad or hopeless almost every day for two or more weeks in a row. Nearly 1 in 5 reported that they have seriously considered attempting suicide.
While schools throughout the state begin planning how to implement mental health education into their curriculum, the Burbank Unified School District continues to build on a foundation that already includes counseling services for all students and a course to help students mentally prepare for their academic rigors in high school and beyond.
“I really applaud and appreciate all the work Sen. Portantino does and for his focus on mental health,” said Superintendent Matt Hill. “He’s really been a leader to raise this issue up so that we’re talking about it. I’m glad to see that he keeps pushing for a conversation about mental health and focusing on our students and employees and making sure we’ve got our resources for that. [The bills] just align with our vision and focus on mental health.”
The district works with the city and Family Services Agency to provide counseling for students at each site and has care centers at both high schools. The BUSD also implemented a course called Get Focused, Stay Focused that helps students mentally prepare for academic challenges ahead.
“We’re going to look at the language of the bill and make sure that our curriculum is meeting all of the new requirements,” Hill said. “We actually think [mental health courses] are important. We’ve done some and we can always do more.”
Hill added that students being able to receive an excused absence for behavioral health concerns is just as important.
“We need to make sure that if students need a mental health day, they work with their families and it gets approved,” he said. “I have to see how we specifically implement that, but I think it’s going to be very similar to when you’re sick and you stay home and get the care you need. We’re going to do that.”