Girl on a dock
In 2019, 31% of Santa Cruz County students who participated in a California Healthy Kids Survey said they’d had feelings of chronic depression in the previous 12 months.
(Via Pixabay)
K-12 Education

Helping students, families navigate mental health: $4M grant will target challenge of finding services

Santa Cruz County’s Office of Education and Behavioral Health Division received a $4 million grant to improve access to mental health treatment for youth. School officials and mental health providers say it’s coming at a time when the need for such services has increased due to the pandemic.

Being put on hold for more than an hour with a mental health provider’s office, when there’s no guarantee that they’ll have an open appointment for a child in need, can be discouraging for anyone.

It’s a scenario Michael Paynter, the Santa Cruz County Office of Education’s executive director of student support services, says he hears about often, and it’s one that can lead to families not receiving the care they need.

School districts, county officials and community organizations have been working over the past several years to improve the system of care for students needing behavioral health services. With a $4 million grant from the California Mental Health Services and Oversight and Accountability Commission, they hope they can tackle this specific challenge: how to navigate through the maze of insurance requirements, long waits for appointments and simply not knowing who to call.

Michael Paynter, Santa Cruz County Office of Education Executive Director of Student Support Services
Michael Paynter, Santa Cruz County Office of Education Executive Director of Student Support Services
(Courtesy of County Office of Education/Karl Nielsen Photography)

The funding comes at a crucial time as families face economic instability and mental health challenges both exacerbated by the pandemic.

In 2019, 31% of Santa Cruz County students who participated in a California Healthy Kids Survey said they’d had feelings of chronic depression in the previous 12 months. Among the LGBTQ population, that figure was 64%, and 78% among students who identified as transgender. Officials are concerned about preliminary data from the survey’s 2021 results showing that those numbers have increased, signaling that the need for behavioral health treatment broadly has gone up.

“This [grant] was not based on a reaction to the pandemic,” Paynter told Lookout. “This was based on this issue already existing. I think everything is still true, it’s only gotten more extreme.”

At this point, the grant is still in its early planning stages. Paynter said he hopes to have the team hired over the next month or so and the program running by 2022. Coordination and contracts with the community organizations and school districts are still underway as well. Two superintendents told Lookout they hope the funding furthers the mental health systems they’ve strengthened over the past two years.

County officials have two major priorities for this grant: 1) fund behavioral health navigators to support students and families until they get services and 2) reduce stigma, particularly for students facing homelessness, chronically absent students and LGBTQ+ students.

The money will fund six behavioral health navigator positions and 10 “student worker” positions. Student workers will be young adults with lived experience who can help their peers connect to the behavioral health navigators, according to Paynter.

He said the navigators won’t be the ones providing the mental health treatment but instead will be more of a counselor or advocate who will help students and their families make the phone calls and understand insurance requirements, for example, until the student has gotten the help they need. Because the navigators aren’t the providers of the service, they won’t be licensed clinicians, Paynter told Lookout; rather, they’ll have therapeutic skills.

In addition to funding the student workers and navigators, the grant will fund additional learning on topics such as suicide prevention, substance use disorder, support for LGBTQ+ students, implicit bias and cultural responsivity for educators, students and caregivers.

“It’s uplifting the skills of school staff to both recognize and attend to any symptoms or indicators of things not looking like well-being,” said Paynter.

Another agency that will receive funding from the grant is the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Santa Cruz County, a nonprofit that offers support groups and training to people affected by mental health conditions.

“We are thrilled,” NAMI Santa Cruz County Executive Director Therese Adams told Lookout. “We are hearing from families that it can be a maze to get help for their child.”

In addition to the logistical challenges of getting treatment, the stigma families can feel if their child has a mental health condition can further complicate getting treatment, Adams said. One of NAMI’s programs, called Ending the Silence, aims to help middle school and high school students break that stigma, understand the signs of mental illness and learn about available resources.

Sophia Tierney manages the program and said teachers frequently request that NAMI return to provide the workshop. In addition to telling students about the warning signs and resources, Tierney said the workshops give students an opportunity to hear from a young adult about their experience and recovery from experiencing a mental illness.

“I really liked this presentation, especially how one of the talkers shared her own story and opened up to us so we could relate to her even though sharing our stories isn’t easy,” one student told Tierney.

Pajaro Valley Unified School District Superintendent Michelle Rodriguez told Lookout the district has made significant changes to its own social-emotional support system since the county’s grant proposal was submitted. In addition to adding mental health counselors, she said the district’s referral system has filled in much of this need for helping connect students to behavioral health care.

Signs someone might be experiencing a mental health crisis

  • Intense worries or fears that get in the way of daily activities
  • Severe out-of-control, risk-taking behaviors that cause harm to self or others
  • Seeing, hearing or believing things that aren’t real
  • Drastic changes in mood, behavior, personality or sleeping habits
  • Significant weight loss or weight gain

Source: NAMI Santa Cruz County, Ending the Silence program

She said what’s needed specifically for students in PVUSD at this point is more mental health care providers.

“All providers of mental health, or even our own social-emotional and mental health clinicians, say that the demand is much higher than it used to be due to the pandemic,” she told Lookout. “Our need is not necessarily around navigators as much as needing the people to provide support once those referrals are made.”

She hopes that any grant funds that come to her district will align with those efforts.

Rodriguez and Paynter said some districts might have a greater need for navigators than others, depending on each district’s available services.

“The need for these services does vary across districts, and we have seen effective use of pandemic relief funding to bolster mental health services and staff — bridging some of the current gap in therapist personnel needs, while still seeing the need for more,” said Paynter.

Christopher Schiermeyer, superintendent of the San Lorenzo Valley Unified School District, told Lookout that schools are limited in how much support they can provide in responding to the increasing need for mental health services.

If there is a way to make connections to our families and students, I’m 100% behind that.

“If there is a way to make connections to our families and students, I’m 100% behind that,” he said about the COE grant.

The SLV district currently has five mental health counselors and two mental health assistants. However, Schiermeyer said that providing mental health services, on top of the difficulties of teaching students in the midst of the pandemic, has become challenging. He agreed with Rodriguez about the growing need for mental health providers for youth.

It’s not clear if there is a shortage of mental health providers in the county, according to NAMI Santa Cruz board member Betsy Clark. However, after working in the mental health field for 30 years, she said what is clear to her is how finding the right therapist quickly narrows someone’s options.

“It’s the Wild West,” she told Lookout, describing how someone with Medi-Cal, for example, will have limited options already because many therapists don’t accept California’s Medicaid program for people with a low income.

That, Paynter said, underscores a persistent need for support to help people reach providers.

“Having these diverse access points will ensure care is more easily sought and received,” he said.

Mental health resources

  • Santa Cruz County Behavioral Health access team

831-454-4170 Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., or 800-952-2335 24 hours a day

  • NAMI Santa Cruz County

Help line: 831-427-8020

Línea de ayuda en español: 831-205-7074

Administrative office: 831-824-0406