The pandemic has exacerbated many known youth mental health issues from anxiety and depression to eating disorders but there’s hope for help as more resources are dedicated to services and programs, local experts said during a town hall hosted by state Sen. Josh Becker.
“We have to be making this a priority,” Becker, D-San Mateo, said during the town hall on adolescent mental health Wednesday. “I want our kids and our youth to have an optimistic view of the future and to look forward to the future.”
Officials at the state level have heightened their focus on supporting youth mental health initiatives. About $250 million in the state’s budget will go toward addressing the behavioral health needs of people under age 25 over the next three years with funds supporting a Youth Suicide Reporting and Crisis Response Pilot Program, a wellness and resilience support program, establishing peer-to-peer support programs and developing digital support services for remote mental health support and video services for parents of children struggling with mental health issues.
And the most recent legislative session saw the passing of Assembly bills 988 and 2273. The first is a bill that raises funds to support a new federal mental health crisis line, also 988, which is meant to better connect those experiencing a mental health crisis with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. The second requires digital platform providers to institute greater privacy protections for users under 18.
But recognizing that laws and money alone cannot solve the mental health crisis, Becker pulled together a panel of experts to discuss the signs to look out for within children and the services already available within communities.
Becker was joined by Marico Sayoc, a Los Gatos councilmember and executive director of Counseling and Support Services for Youth in Milpitas; Mary Cheryl B. Gloner, CEO of Project Safety Net in Palo Alto; Chelsea Bonini, a San Mateo County Board of Education trustee and San Mateo County Behavioral Health commissioner; and Dr. David J. Miklowitz, director of the Max Gray Child and Adolescent Mood Disorders Program at UCLA’s Semel Institute.
The issue by numbers
Before the pandemic forced many parts of society to shutter, including schools and other youth spaces, rates of mental health complications among children were long a concern, with about 15% experiencing depression and 32% experiencing anxiety, Miklowitz said.
Those rates have since shot up though. Citing figures from the “State of Student Wellness,” a report by American Civil Liberties Union California Action and the California State University Center to Close the Opportunity Gap, Becker said about 20% of students surveyed said they felt traumatized because of the pandemic, 63% experiencing emotional meltdowns and 45% felt depressed.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 37% of high school students surveyed reported they experienced poor mental health during the pandemic, 44% reported feelings of sadness or hopelessness and more than 55% reportedly experienced emotional abuse by a parent while 11% reported experiencing physical abuse.
Meanwhile, Becker said only about 17% of students felt an increase in mental health services as they emerged from remote learning while “an overwhelming majority did not.” In San Mateo County, Becker said referrals to behavioral health clinicians increased by 100% for youth and calls to the county’s Behavioral Health and Recovery Services department have also increased across the board.
“I know that we can get to a better place and that we have to, that we owe it to our youth to make this a priority and to just devote as much attention to this as possible,” Becker said.
Services are available within the community, especially on school campuses, one place young people likely spend most of their waking time. Given how much time students spend at school, on-campus services play a vital role in ensuring students are cared for, the experts agreed.
Despite a shortage of therapists across the state, Sayoc said, mental health professionals have stepped up to the plate to both support staff and families while building trust with those who reach out to them. If an issue is beyond the scope of what an on-campus counselor can provide, Sayoc said, referrals are frequently directing students to the proper care.
“For parents, that’s helpful because it’s difficult to navigate the system and we’re there to help be your advocate and champion for that,” Sayoc said. “There’s a multitude of resources and really there is no wrong door. If you make a call, there is someone compassionate that will help direct you to the right resources.”
Beyond school campuses, Bonini and Gloner noted agencies throughout the region have stepped up to provide culturally comprehensive care to communities. Both highlighted StarVista which offers a number of programs in San Mateo County and most recently launched its Youth Stabilization, Opportunity, and Support Team, a mobile response team specializing in treating mental health crises of youth ages 0 to 25.
Additional mobile programs are also being piloted in north county, Gloner said. And Becker highlighted the work being done at Ayudando Latinos A Soñar or ALAS, a nonprofit in Half Moon Bay focused on providing wraparound services to Latino residents.
Progress is being made to ensure all residents in the county have access to diverse and culturally sensitive care, Gloner said, lauding officials for dedicating resources to that work. But more is still needed she said, sharing hope that gaps in services will be greatly diminished in three to five years.
While many programs currently exist, the group agreed that much work is left to be done around informing the public of what services are available and destigmatizing mental health. On that front, organizations have sought to amplify messaging to communities from members of those communities including encouraging more young advocacy.
“The power of community, the lived experience and knowing that the more you share your stories, the more you speak, the more you ask is the way that we can change,” Gloner said.
For those concerned for their children, Miklowitz encouraged families to keep an eye out for sudden behavioral changes such as self-isolation, shifts in eating patterns, increased fatigue or sudden interest in strange or morbid topics. Especially for teens, Miklowitz said outbursts of anger or irritability could be a sign of depression.
Not all behaviors are directly linked to a mental health issue, Miklowitz noted, highlighting the importance of seeking out an expert when necessary. Treatment plans will vary by child, he said. Some may do well with therapy while others may also need medication. Shifts in daily patterns may also be recommended such as adjustments to sleep schedules and bedtime hygiene, beginning meditation or adjusting one’s diet.
“This works if our community is aware of the issues,” Bonini said. “Some of the statistics show we were already in a mental health crisis before the pandemic but as with many things it’s just been unearthed or revealed so we really need to make sure that at all the points in the system people know where the resources are.”
If you or a loved one are struggling with mental health issues, call (800) 686-0101 for toll-free 24-7 assistance or 711 for the hearing impaired. Visit the County Health website at smchealth.org/mental-health-services for more information on mental health services.
(650) 344-5200 ext. 106