A school can be many things: a place to learn, to connect with friends, to compete on the sports field. It can also be a place where students feel stressed, where they are hurt by judgment and racism, or where they are exposed to substance use.
May is Mental Health Month and the perfect time for schools to commit to creating a safe space to decompress, ask questions without judgment and connect to behavioral health professionals when needed.
Through the Marin Youth Opioid Response 2 Grant, issued to the Marin County Probation Department and managed by BluePath Health, students at Novato High School have a dedicated wellness care navigator employed by North Marin Community Services. The navigator works in partnership with Novato High’s counselors and administrators as part of a wellness campus.
To make students feel safe, the coordinator must be approachable and never judgmental. Having a coordinator who is bilingual and shares a background with many Novato students, 40% of whom are Latino, makes a big difference, too. When they don’t have to spend time explaining cultural dynamics, they can just jump right into what’s on their minds.
These traits are why so many students seek out the school’s wellness services to ask questions about sensitive topics like sexual health, substance use or just to talk about how they are feeling without being stigmatized. For students who need higher levels of support, a dedicated wellness coordinator is a connection to NMCS clinicians on campus or other mental health services off campus.
So far, through this effort, almost 200 students on campus have been screened for substance use, suicide risk, anxiety, depression and protective factors. Of these, 90% indicated a moderate to high need for mental health support. They are far from alone. So many young people across the nation are feeling mental distress, US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy has declared a youth mental health emergency.
According to Dr. Murthy, youth are “bombarded” by messages in the media and popular culture that harm their self-worth. As if that’s not enough, “legitimate, and distressing, issues like climate change, income inequality, racial injustice, the opioid epidemic and gun violence” are also taking a toll on youth mental health. And that was all before the COVID-19 pandemic. Since 2019, emergency room visits for suicide attempts among girls 12-17 have soared by more than 50%. In the first year of the pandemic, teen deaths from drug overdoses nearly doubled.
Youth who are members of the RxSafe Marin Youth Action Team help shape the Marin Youth Opioid Response program by sharing perspectives about how to reach youth with messages about substance use, including the dangers of tobacco use. Having youth at the table makes such efforts more successful, because teens need information that resonates with them.
Because of the connection between mental health struggles and substance use, these youth are also working with peers to teach them how to use Narcan, a prescription medicine used to treat opioid overdoses. Substance use looks different from campus to campus, and by training young people to recognize overdoses and how to save a life, they are helping to start conversations that are important whether students are confronted with alcohol, drugs or nicotine. We want students to feel, “I have the power to create change.”
We believe students on every high school campus would benefit from culturally and linguistically appropriate wellness services. Unfortunately, funding to pay for and scale up these services has not been widely available, but there is good news. The California Department of Health Care Services has allocated funding. Schools must act soon to seize this opportunity for the coming school year. Schools can partner with community-based organizations to do this work, lowering costs and providing services to students such as health clinics, family services and housing support.
Kids are feeling overwhelmed. That won’t go away soon. By leveraging new funding, schools can support students with the tools they need to decompress, ensure they get important questions answered, and receive the help they need without fear or judgment from adults.
Christina Tejada is a wellness care navigator for North Marin Community Services at Novato High School. Jessica Mendieta is a student at Novato High, a member of the Marin County Youth Commission and co-chair for the RxSafe Marin Youth Action Team. Distributed and supported through a federal grant under the State Opioid Response program, with funding provided by the California Department of Health Care Services.