Opinion: It’s Time to Fulfill Our Promise to Teachers, Students and Parents

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The start of a new school year should be marked by excitement, nerves and, perhaps, more than a little yearning for a longer summer. But this year, the return to school is different.

For the last two years, isolation, fear, confusion and uncertainty have taken a toll on our children’s mental health.

Students across California are suffering.

A youth mental health crisis made worse by COVID-19 has tragically resulted in spiking rates of mental health emergency room visits and a tripling of opioid-related overdoses among 15 to 19-year-olds between 2019 and 2020. And that doesn’t even take into account the trauma experienced by tens of thousands of California kids who have lost a loved one to COVID-19.

One of the hardest obstacles to overcome in addressing the mental health and substance use crises is recognizing when someone is struggling and knowing what a call for help can look like. I was proud to be a champion for our kids and sponsor two bills strengthening mental health awareness for youth that were signed into law and took effect this year. One of these bills requires integration of mental health content into health education courses. The other requires the California Department of Education to identify and recommend behavioral health training programs for teachers, staff and students.

I’m proud of the progress we’ve made. But we’re still coming up woefully short on meeting kids where they are, especially as they return to in-person learning. Right now, there is no requirement for California schools to establish mental health awareness training programs for their teachers and staff.

We can and must do better.

I recently introduced Senate Bill 387 to help teachers and school-based staff receive training on how to recognize the signs of a mental health crisis. The bill would have required a percentage of teachers and staff in every school to receive mental health awareness training. The bill had overwhelming support from a coalition of mental health organizations, student-led groups, parents and health care providers. But despite passing unanimously in the Senate, the bill wasn’t given the opportunity for a hearing in the Assembly and consequently failed to pass.

Although teachers and school-based staff are not trained mental health professionals, they are in a unique position to identify and support youth who need help. By equipping teachers with the training needed to recognize the signs and symptoms of someone experiencing a mental health or substance use challenge, we’ll help ensure students don’t slip through the cracks. This type of awareness training requires nothing from teachers that they don’t already do – it merely strengthens their ability to collaborate with the school’s counseling office and the student’s parents.

The benefits from such training are immense. As reported from Project Cal-Well, a program designed to raise awareness of mental health for youth, families and school communities, school staff who received training were overwhelmingly better able to talk to students about their issues and give them information about available services and resources.

The failure of Senate Bill 387 is especially disheartening when we see Florida stepping up to make this important training happen. Just this year, Florida enacted a similar law requiring every school district in the state to demonstrate they’ve trained at least 80 percent of their school employees in mental health awareness and assistance.

Despite this recent missed opportunity, I won’t stop fighting to protect students’ mental well-being and to give teachers the training they need to better support their students.

We owe it to our kids, our teachers and our communities to establish mental health awareness training in schools statewide. This upcoming session, I look forward to once again introducing and fighting to pass a bill that equips teachers and school employees with the skills needed to recognize the signs and symptoms of a mental health or substance use challenge.

Together, we’ll create a better support system for our kids.

Senator Anthony Portantino represents California’s 25th State Senate District, which stretches along the 210 Freeway from Sunland/Tujunga to Upland. 

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