The number of students referred for mental health counseling services in the Mountain View-Los Altos High School District jumped significantly for the first quarter of the 2019-20 school year, with the bulk of the increase coming from Los Altos High School.
The trend, revealed in recent annual reports from both Mountain View and Los Altos high schools, underscores the ongoing challenge of providing mental health support to teens in a school environment. The district spends more than $1.3 million each year to maintain an in-house team of therapists -- paid for partially by outside organizations -- which received more than 650 referrals from the start of the school year through October.
The biggest increase was at Los Altos High School, where 282 students were referred for counseling through October -- up from 202 around the same time the prior year. The 40% increase means that an average of 94 students per month are being referred for services. Mountain View High School had 371 referrals, up from 350 last year. Anxiety, depression, academic difficulties and issues with family and peers were consistent problems for students at both schools.
The high school district has spent the past several years publicizing its counseling program as a way to support students showing symptoms and behaviors associated with mental health disorders. The bar for seeking help is set intentionally low, giving anyone the ability to anonymously refer students.
Referrals are essentially a starting point for therapy and other types of mental health support, and in many cases students will either decline services or simply "check in" with staff on how they're doing. Historically, nearly half the students are referred for therapy by district staff or referred to an outside provider, including the Community Health Awareness Council (CHAC) in Mountain View and Children's Health Council in Palo Alto.
Who refers the students shifts every year. During the fall quarter at Los Altos High School, for example, the highest number of students referred themselves -- a total of 103, or about 38%. Referrals from therapists (13.2%), school staff (13%) and administrators (12.5%) trailed, followed by peers, counselors and parents. Self referrals were also the most common at Mountain View High School, followed by school staff, other therapists, and special education staff that conduct Individualized Education Plans (IEPs).
Mountain View High has grappled with the deaths of two students by suicide since August 2018, putting local mental health professionals on high alert about possible "contagion," previously described as a suicide cluster in which students are at higher risk.
Though the deaths have been a topic of concern for both school staff and even city officials, the problem has been steadily growing for a while. When school staff began carefully tracking its mental health services about six years ago, the district was receiving about 200 referrals each year, which quickly climbed to more than 800 in 2017 and inundated counselors with difficult caseloads.
Mountain View High School Principal Dave Grissom said the numbers are "alarming" at first, but could be a sign that the school's culture is evolving in a way that students aren't ashamed to seek help from mental health care professionals.
"The concern for others is greater, and there is an understanding of 'how' to refer (students) that I don't think was there before," Grissom said.
Surveys conducted at Mountain View High show that 24% of freshmen students and 33% of juniors reported feeling "chronic" sadness or hopelessness in the last year, and 16% of freshmen and 20% of juniors reported seriously considering suicide. Though not far from the state average, school staff is vowing to bring down those numbers over the next five years. The school's annual report calls for bringing the number of students feeling chronic sadness and hopelessness down to 15% among freshmen and 20% among juniors.
Other school districts may soon follow in the footsteps of Mountain View-Los Altos. In October, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors agreed to explore ways to expand the availability of school-based mental health services, arguing that placing mental health staff in all of the county's 32 school districts could be an effective way to create a "baseline" level of support for students. The program would likely focus on prevention and early intervention -- screening students for signs of behavioral disorders or depressive symptoms before they get worse.
County staff is expected to spend the next several months researching the best way to implement such a program, including a comprehensive analysis on the unmet mental health needs of children in the county. National studies have found that roughly 1 in 5 teens ages 13 to 18 suffer from a mental health disorder, but few have actually met with a mental health care provider. The reasons why are manifold, including a dearth of available child psychiatrists and psychologists, and a failure on the part of commercial insurance companies to provide mental health services at the same level as physical health care.
If the county's school-based mental health program comes to fruition, it could tap into funding recently made available by the state. California is currently accepting applications for $75 million in grant money available to counties and school districts that team up on "increasing access to mental health services in locations that are easily accessible to students and their families." Just under half of that money will be available to "large" counties, which includes Santa Clara.