The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the mental health crisis facing California’s youth. The California Mental Health Services Oversight & Accountability Commission recently reported that 1 in 6 high school students considered suicide in the past year.The rates are even more dire when you look specifically at LGBTQ+ communities, where 1 in 3 high school students have had suicidal ideations. As a teacher, I see these numbers play out daily in my classroom.
Outside of friends and family, teachers spend the most time with youth. They can identify early on which pupils are going through mental health or substance use challenges. However, they must be able to recognize the signs and symptoms of these common conditions to spot students in crisis. California legislators have the opportunity to equip educators and youth with the tools they need to help such students by passing Senate Bill 14, known as “Pupil Health, School Employee and Pupil Training, Excused Absences, and Youth Behavioral Health.”
I have spent the past 30 years of my life as an educator in California, and I know firsthand that California teachers and schools are not currently prepared, staffed, or resourced to respond to California’s growing youth mental health crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted our collective mental wellbeing, whether from dealing with the fear of contracting COVID-19 to its related impacts like home isolation, family job loss, tech challenges, or loss of a loved one. As teachers on the front line of the crisis, we need to be prepared to help our students.
Recently, I was given the opportunity to attend a Youth Mental Health First Aid training, and the skills I learned there were invaluable. As a teacher, it taught me the signs and symptoms that would let me know when something was amiss and provided me with appropriate ways to get students the support they needed. Before I attended the training, I had students with suicidal ideation confide in me, and I didn’t know which words would best help them. I am now confident in what to say and how to react. I want other teachers to be afforded the same opportunity to learn the skills that will help them identify the signs and symptoms of a student in crisis. I want educators to learn the skills to know what to say to these students and how to direct them toward proper care.
Locally, in the Glendale Unified School District, I have joined my fellow teachers to get our school district and union leaders to listen to us about the need for mental and behavioral health trainings that will prepare us for the challenges our students face, but we’ve had a hard time breaking through. The author of SB 14, Sen. Anthony Portantino (D-25), has a long history as a mental health advocate and champion, and we applaud him for listening to the concerns of teachers and authoring this bill to address the concerns we’ve raised about our ability to aid our students. We also applaud the excused absence portion of the bill, which would ensure that youth absences for a mental health issue or appointment will be excused in the same fashion as those for physical health issues.
On July 7, 2020, the bill passed the Assembly education committee with a bipartisan 7-0 vote. Although the bill successfully passed, the committee chair forced amendments that undercut the intent of the legislation. My fellow teachers, advocates, legislators and I are concerned that, with the amendments, the bill no longer provides teachers and students with the strongest opportunities and tools needed to prepare for the behavioral health crisis we’ll see in schools. Most concerning, the bill no longer includes a mandate to have 50 percent of all classified and certificated employees in every school to be trained by 2023. By removing the mandate, the trainings will continue to be taken on a volunteer basis.
The volunteer basis model is not going to motivate educators to go through the training, nor will it encourage school districts to prioritize them, even though these trainings do not take a significant amount of time to complete. When considering the number of kids in California’s schools who need support from adults, especially after the pandemic, a volunteer basis model is no longer enough to fully meet the needs in our schools.
In the future, we hope to continue to work with senators like Portantino to move forward legislation that will give everyone on the frontlines the tools they need to mitigate the mental health crisis in our state.
Corky O’Rourke is a teacher specialist and private school coordinator who has taught general education and special education for the last 37 years.