Number of high school students seeking therapy spikes | News | Mountain View Online |


Number of high school students seeking therapy spikes

Teens reportedly struggling with anxiety, depression and academic difficulties

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.

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10 people like this
Posted by Gary
a resident of Sylvan Park
on Jan 1, 2020 at 10:28 am

Gary is a registered user.

Wow. Have these stats changed over the decades? Or no one knows because the mental health of students was not assessed or tracked? Maybe there are good reasons to be sad, for example. Is it evidence of mental illness that someone is sad or just that someone is sad for no good reason? Are high school students at St. Francis sad - or experiencing sadness - at the same rate? What do mental health professionals find as the main causes of difficulties and what can the be done? What percentage of high schoolers at Los Altos High, for example, use a mood-altering drug each week. Would magic mushrooms help?

4 people like this
Posted by Steven Nelson
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Jan 2, 2020 at 10:32 am

Steven Nelson is a registered user.

The MVLA high school district administrators from 6 years ago are to be handily congratulated! Without their foresight, and the support of the 2013 Board of Trustees, this "referral" aspect of the problem would not have been tracked. Without the followup increase in actual program funding (public policy of the Board) there would not be an increased counseling program. Protect the general Welfare!

Gary! Please don't be publicly such a snit. [ n., a state of agitation ] (or should I say a grouch or grinch? - to pass muster with Editor Andrea). This is a serious problem, a serious program, and a serious reporter's explanation to our community.

8 people like this
Posted by Gary
a resident of Sylvan Park
on Jan 2, 2020 at 2:18 pm

Gary is a registered user.

Steve. I am not sure what you mean. The article says 33% of high school juniors reported feeling "chronic sadness or hopelessness in the last year." I asked whether sadness is itself evidence of mental illness. I asked if the local private high school, St. Francis, had the same experience. I did not suggest the topic was not serious. Quite the contrary.

5 people like this
Posted by Dan Waylonis
a resident of Jackson Park
on Jan 2, 2020 at 4:59 pm

Dan Waylonis is a registered user.

As Gary pointed out, without reasonable statistics about the actual changes, it seems like another possible reason for the rise is simply that it's being presented more prominently to students:

"The high school district has spent the past several years publicizing its counseling program[...]"

8 people like this
Posted by harvardmom
a resident of Monta Loma
on Jan 3, 2020 at 7:57 am

This topic deeply concerns me. I am a substitute teacher for MVLA, and I see the caring and good work being done. One day recently I saw Dave Grissom's (MVHS principal) office door closed and lights out, and it felt weird to me because that door seems to always be open with Dave nearby. Maybe at that moment he had a meeting, but the point is that he, like his staff, are approachable and make themselves seen around campus. One day I went into Dave's office and asked about a particular student, and it was no surprise that Dave knew her, even though there are something like 2,200 students on the MVHS campus. I've seen teachers leave their classroom doors open during lunch, thus giving up a quiet hour to themselves, so students can use the room to eat, study, or meet with their friends. I know the custodial staff. Why? Because they walk around and say hello to everyone, even a substitute teacher like me. I'm glad to know that students are sharing their pain and sadness with staff and that staff is doing everything possible to make sure the students are safe and cared for. I'm glad I'm there, too, to do what little I can to participate in their lives as one more friendly, approachable adult. Sometimes speaking with a complete stranger--which a substitute teacher usually is--is what students choose and need. I'm not a counselor, but I've been able to report a situation and get the student help. The students are under all kinds of pressure to do well. Even though I'm there, see that pressure, feel it, and react to it, I can't imagine what it's like to be a teenager nowadays. For those reading this, there are ways to help. The district has a mentoring program where adult volunteers meet with an individual student and offer friendship, motivation and guidance at a different level than a staff person can. Please contact the MVLA district office or school to find out more.

12 people like this
Posted by Mom
a resident of another community
on Jan 3, 2020 at 8:39 am

I can only speak of LAHS but from what I've seen there is a lot of lip service paid to mental health and wellness but not much true day-to-day action on behalf of students. Even with a 504 for anxiety or depression, only a few teachers are truly understanding and willing to work with the students. Student Services is there to act as a roadblock to families rather than to find what they can do to help students succeed. Teachers refuse to provide tests (after they are graded) for students to take home to discuss with parents or tutors, even with a written agreement to not share the test with anyone, thus increasing the stress for students who aren't doing well in a class. There are no places on campus to get away from the noise and chaos of the overcrowded school. The library, college center, and nurse's office are all noisy. I'd like the school to implement a program like Gunn's where every staff member is responsible for getting to know a small group of students (not 100s like the counselors) and to have the school figure out how they are contributing to the mental health issues our students are facing and CHANGE!

9 people like this
Posted by Jon Keeling
a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Jan 3, 2020 at 10:04 pm

Jon Keeling is a registered user.

I would like to offer some thoughts on both the positives and the negatives of what is highlighted in this article.

Is it really worth reading this long comment of mine? Why should my opinion matter? - My life is about keeping people safe, particularly kids. I teach Karate and self-defense as a profession and do a ton of volunteer work, mostly dealing with schools and/or mental health. I am the parent representative for Los Altos High’s School Safety Committee and have dealt with safety issues at various schools in the area. Among other things, I have done work with CrisisTextLine, ChallengeDay, Mentor-Tutor Connection and SandyHookPromise. When I was a teenager, my father ran the CT state suicide hotline and we had several suicides and attempts in our family. I have done quite a lot of research and coaching in the areas of education, mental health and parenting. I had already read through the reports cited in this article, by the way.

The negatives:
School can be stressful. Kids these days, particularly in this area, are often under extreme pressure to “succeed.” This pressure can come from the school, parents and/or fellow students and often all three simultaneously. Additionally, anxiety may be exacerbated by macro concerns such as climate change or school shooting risks (couldn’t happen here of course…just like it couldn’t have happened in my quiet hometown of Newtown, CT…). Or there can be micro concerns such as recently divorced parents, financial concerns, physical, emotional or substance abuse, etc. Some kids barely spend any time with either of their parents who may be working long hours and the students may be further withdrawn from family/friends/community due to a smart phone addiction. On a related note, kids these days are often not sleeping well/enough. And shifting to later school start times may not alleviate this problem, as computer/smartphone use are in most cases a far more important negative factor on their sleep problems (I can give a lecture on this subject that could jolt many parents into making significant positive changes at home…). There are plenty of challenges. In the words of my psychologist father: “Being the parent of a teenager is the second hardest job there is…But the hardest job is being a teenager.” Parents may have a hard time dealing with all the emotions and hormones, stresses and confusion of their teens. But at least they had some similar experiences in their own past that can help them figure out how to deal with things. For the teenager, it’s all new. And some of it their parents never experienced at all (cyberbullying? What’s that?). Want to look at some interesting data? Web Link

The positives:
A major contributing factor of the increased referrals for therapy at our local schools is definitely that the students are increasingly being encouraged to consider their feelings and reach out for help if they feel the need, as well as being informed of the various options for help.
As stated in the article: “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.”
I would bet that the majority of our middle school and high school students know what 741741 is, even if most adults do not. That’s the number for CrisisTextLine (please memorize it so you can share it with people who may need it). I have answered well over 300 calls to this service as a Crisis Counselor over the past several years. Kids are using this service and it helps. For more info, see Web Link

What can we do to improve?:
Some of our schools do a better job at dealing with mental health issues than others. That LAHS has the highest rates of referrals to therapy is something I take as a positive sign. From what I have seen, they have been doing the best job of any high school in the area in terms of building a supportive community, which is something their administration prides themselves on. They have had referral boxes around campus for years now. And they have a school-wide Challenge Day program. They are the only high school in the area that does the school-wide program and I think it makes a huge difference. I have volunteered at these full-day programs at every school that has run them in the past year. LAHS (all-day event for all 9th graders and assembly for 10th-12th graders), MVHS (last year just a small, invitation-only group), Gunn (same version as MVHS), Bullis Charter (all their 8th graders), Greene Middle School (I did 2 of the 3 sessions for all their 7th graders) and KIPP school in East Palo Alto (all their 7th graders). Challenge Day is not cheap but their group is the best at this sort of thing and how can you put a price tag on a program that improves the lives of hundreds of kids in a single day, sometimes even saving a life. Last January, I saw a student basically say he would put off his plans to end his life after experiencing the ChallengeDay program. How much is that worth? My Karate group just ran a fundraiser for them a couple weeks ago: Web Link How about getting Challenge Day into all the local middle schools and high schools? Seems to me like something worth using some of the state’s grant money for…
We also have ChallengeTeam (not related to ChallengeDay) working in this area to support students. This group meets once/month, early on a Thursday morning. For more info: Web Link
Another thing that we have going for us is Mentor-Tutor Connection. I have worked with them for the past couple years and am now trying to build interest in starting a similar program for Palo Alto students. Many students could really use a positive adult influence in their life. For those interested, they are running a volunteer info session in a couple weeks: Web Link (Ha! They just today put out a new version of their website and I see my photo is one of the ones on the front page! :-) ).

We can all do better. But I think there are plenty of positives to point to and I am encouraged regarding our future.

For anyone who wants to discuss any of the above in private, please feel free to email me directly at I have plenty more I could say on this subject but (believe it or not) tried to keep things brief here. ;-)

7 people like this
Posted by LAHS
a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Jan 6, 2020 at 2:45 pm

LAHS is a registered user.

I've found individual teachers at LAHS to be fairly understanding with my kid, who has a learning disability and an anxiety diagnosis. He has panic attacks at school sometimes, for reasons everyone who watches the news can understand.

However, it takes a parent going to the info nights, shaking hands, asking for that 504 meeting when the school wants you to waive it, sending emails to individual teachers, and on and on to make that happen.

I think schools lack understanding that many if not most students with learning disabilities also have a co-morbid condition such as depression or anxiety. There are often assumptions being made that these kids are lazy or have bad attitudes. Instead, they may well be trying to keep calm and concentrate despite mental health challenges that make that very difficult. I feel for the kids who don't have a parent able to advocate for them in the way that seems to be required.

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