First published in the Nov. 4 print issue of the Outlook Valley Sun.
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 students during distance learning. The 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 La Cañada Flintridge.
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 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 the curriculum, the La Cañada Unified School District is adding to what is already a solid foundation in the Spartan Wellness Center, a 1,200-square-foot haven on the La Cañada High School campus that opened in 2019 to give students a calm space and crisis support from counselors and psychologists.
“It’s something I’m really proud of, for our district to be so committed and proactive in [mental health support],” said Rachel Zooi, a counselor at the center.
“It’s been a way to reduce stigma, promote mental health and to have a place for students when they need to talk with someone, find resources or just take a break to reboot themselves,” Zooi added.
As the center celebrated its opening two years ago, Zooi worried that it would take a long time for it to catch on with students.
“It was the opposite,” she said. “We have about … 200 visits per week. Now we can’t imagine not having [the center].”
With so much interest from pupils, the Wellness Center has developed programs and trained peer counselors that can serve new students, and Zooi said LCHS is currently in the beginning stages of a mental wellness basics course for 9th-graders.
Though the LCUSD is ahead of the curve in mental health awareness and education, Zooi said “it’s great” that state leaders are doing their part to implement similar programs throughout California.
“I think it sends a really positive message,” she added. “I think the research has been there for a while now that prevention is critical to reducing mental health problems and outcomes and having that education early on. It’s really just having a positive mindset, healthy habits and relationships and emotional awareness.”