We made a family move to Palo Alto, California, nearly three years ago, when our daughter Zoe was 13. Relocation is hard, especially when you love your home and we loved New Mexico. Still, my husband and I hoped that the move to a new community would broaden Zoe’s exposure to the world, offering her a chance to meet new people, find beauty in new places, and expand her sense of possibilities.
The move from New Mexico, with the highest child poverty rate in the nation, to Palo Alto, one of the wealthiest communities in the world, has been disorienting. Three years later, we are still adjusting to the Teslas, the tech talk, and the businesses focused on meeting the individual desires of each consumer (from individually brewed coffee, to ice cream made to order while you wait, to nearly anything you want to buy being delivered directly to your home in a matter of hours). We now live in the world of startups and Stanford. We quickly learned that with all these privileges, Palo Alto, like other communities, is struggling to figure out how to support kids.
Our new community was devastated in the 2014-2015 school year when five youth died by suicide. We are losing our children. But not just to suicide. All children face serious challenges at times – parents’ divorce, teenagers break up, children are bullied, school demands seem unmanageable. Prevention and early intervention services are essential for all children. And mental health issues start early, 50 percent by the time students reach the age of 14. More than one in five children and adolescents have or will have a mental health condition.
Helping children means having a system of supports, including mental health services, available to children when needed so that they can manage life’s difficulties. And the earlier the better, because we know that early intervention for mental health conditions matters, just like it does for any other health condition. Mental health services are especially vital for children with serious mental health conditions. Seventy percent of youth who commit suicide have a mental illness that may or may not have been treated in the past.
How do we best protect our children? When children falter, we need a system of care to catch them. What would a coordinated mental health care system for our children look like? From a child’s perspective, it means that when a child needs help, the right services are readily accessible. The system that touches nearly all children is our education system. It is the widest safety net.
Our public schools already have a responsibility to identify when children have mental health needs that are impacting them at school. California has seen a significant change in how mental health services are provided to students. In 2011, the state shifted a 25-year practice of formally requiring school districts and counties to work together to ensure mental health services were provided as needed. Now, the responsibility for providing mental health services to students falls squarely on schools. And as recent studies have shown, kids are losing out. According to the California State Auditor, although approximately 700,000 children in California could be classified with serious emotional disturbance, only up to 120,000 students receive mental health-related services through special education from their schools. While not every student with a mental health condition needs services in schools, many do.
For the past 20 years I have represented children with mental health challenges and their families to help them access appropriate educational services. Advocating for children who need mental health services in school, I have gotten used to some common refrains: “teachers go to school so they can teach, not address all the ills facing children,” “schools are already overburdened,” “schools don’t have the right expertise,” “we educate, not treat.” These justifications amount to a mistaken belief on the part of schools that responding to mental health needs is “not our job.” But we know unmet mental health needs impact learning. We also know that teachers need to have sufficient mental health resources available to help them understand and respond to the needs of students in their classes. When schools fail to adequately invest in mental health services, teachers are less able to teach students and students are less able to learn.
To be sure, schools cannot solve this problem alone. Because schools have not historically embraced the responsibility to provide mental health services to students, it is imperative that schools partner with high quality mental health providers to help them better identify and respond to students who need support. Partnerships are also critical because children, youth and their families need mental health services to address issues outside of school as well. Our children need a high quality system of mental health services.
We live in the land of startups and Stanford. It is time for us to collectively use our region’s spirit of innovation and creativity to invest in a system of mental health services for children. Schools need to be leaders in this effort. As a community, it is essential that we support schools in developing the partnerships needed to provide mental health services to students and to advance a vision for a larger system of services for children. Last month, Young Minds Advocacy honored Chloe Sorenson, a Gunn high school student, for her leadership in addressing mental health issues in her school and community. In accepting her award, Chloe urged us to increase awareness for mental health and expand school services. In Chloe’s words, “When we empower youth and give them access to quality care, lives are saved.”
Tara Ford is a senior attorney at Young Minds Advocacy.