The Mountain View City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to turn youth mental health into a top priority next year, following the deaths of two high school students by suicide since August 2018.
The move, prompted by Councilwoman Margaret Abe-Koga, means the council will find ways to fit mental health care into a crowded list of citywide goals sometime in early 2020, and could lead to several major shifts in the way the city treats youth suicide prevention.
The initial hope is to improve cross-agency collaboration by following in the footsteps of Palo Alto's "Project Safety Net," including better safety measures at the Caltrain station and at-grade crossings in Mountain View. The transit agency has reported 16 fatalities on the tracks so far this year, including one at Castro Street.
Abe-Koga said at the Dec. 10 meeting that she wants to find ways the city could bolster its involvement in youth mental health after two Mountain View High School students died by suicide in less than two years. Eddie Keep died by suicide shortly before the start of the 2018-19 school year. In October, a second teen -- whose name was not publicly released according to his the family's wishes -- was struck by a Caltrain in Mountain View and later died of his injuries.
Keep's mother, Peggy Keep, told council members that more needs to be done to prevent suicides, including safety and security measures along the Caltrain tracks. Crossing guards or cameras may not be the perfect solution, but they could at least act as a deterrent, she said.
"There's too much pressure -- there's all kinds of things that contribute to this," Keep said. "It is way too easy, at certain hours of the evening, to walk down Castro Street and just stand in front of a train."
The city adopted a policy in 2012 explicitly calling for strategies preventing suicide, but has taken a relatively hands-off approach to mental health up until now. Mountain View provides annual funding to the nonprofit Community Health Awareness Council (CHAC) as part of a cross-agency agreement, but the city's contribution, a little over $100,000 each year, is a small slice of CHAC's $3.7 million budget.
Palo Alto launched Project Safety Net, a collaborative of more than 30 community organizations including the city, the school district and local nonprofits, following a similar spate of tragedies, and Mountain View could consider following suit, Abe-Koga said.
"I would like for us to have a deeper dive into this issue in this coming year," she said.
One component of suicide prevention, safety measures on the Caltrain tracks, has been explored, tested and altered over the last decade in neighboring Palo Alto after a cluster of youth suicides prompted city officials to take action. At first, it was volunteer "track watchers," followed by city-hired security personnel keeping watch at all hours.
The approach changed again last year, when the city implemented a new thermal and infrared security camera system, complete with an "intrusion detection system" with algorithms designed to detect movement within 1,000 feet -- night or day. Abe-Koga said residents and school district constituents have both suggested Caltrain safety measures could help reduce access to means for suicide.
Councilwoman Alison Hicks said she believes youth mental health initiatives run by nonprofits like CHAC, local schools and El Camino Hospital are "very scattered," and that the city might have a role to play in coordinating services under one roof. She added that the big-time philanthropic giants in the area, like the Silicon Valley Education Foundation and Sobrato Family Foundation, focus heavily on physical health and education and may be neglecting an opportunity to help kids struggling with mental health conditions.
At the same time, she said, the city should set limits on its involvement.
"I'm not particularly interested in the city becoming a mental health provider," Hicks said. "I'm interested in hearing more from the community and then improving what these various organizations do, or possibly partnering with Project Safety Net."
National studies have found that about 1 in 5 children have a mental, emotional or behavioral disorder, but only about 20% of those children actually receive care from a mental health provider. The reasons for the gap are manifold, including a dearth of available psychiatrists and psychologists and challenges in finding affordable, in-network care. Anxiety and depression make up the large majority of mental health illnesses diagnosed in youth ages 13 to 18.
In response to inadequate mental health care, nonprofits and school districts are working to fill in the gaps. Mountain View-Los Altos High School District hires a team of a half-dozen therapists, and has a contract with CHAC to have mental health counselors on campus throughout the year.
Patients seeking an appointment at CHAC's Mountain View clinic can face long waiting lists to get services, and increasing the city's financial support to the nonprofit could put a dent in the problem, said Councilman John McAlister.
"I'm in total support of putting some money where our mouths are, and actually contributing to existing programs that will help solve those problems," he said.