Santa Cruz County education officials envision a future where every high school in the county will have a “hub” for students to access a wide range of counseling and mental health services.
Until then, the county will launch wellness centers in two schools—expected to open in the 2023/24 school year–—thanks in part to a $1 million grant recently secured by Congressman Jimmy Panetta.
Panetta visited the Santa Cruz County Office of Education (SCCOE) Thursday to discuss the importance of providing mental health services for young people.
Panetta shares a troubling statistic to show just how necessary mental health resources are: in 2020, officials recorded more than 6,600 deaths by suicide among young people, and suicide is the second leading cause of death for people aged 10-24.
Once the centers are open, students can walk in when they need to talk to a counselor, regardless of their insurance status.
Superintendent Faris Sabbah says access is critical, given that 284,000 students are coping with depression, with two-thirds not receiving treatment.
The issue significantly affects LGBTQ youth, who are four times more likely to consider suicide, Sabbah says.
The centers will also be a resource for teachers, who frequently build strong relationships with their students but are not always equipped to offer the mental health support they may need, says SCCOE Climate and Wellness Coordinator Hayley Newman. More importantly, their prominent location on campus will normalize the idea of mental health care.
“Students can dip their toes into wellness at the level they feel comfortable with,” she says.
Watsonville High School Junior Katalyna López, who sits on the SCCOE’s Youth Mental Health Leadership Council, says that she, like many of her peers, has struggled with her own mental health. She wants to help build a system where teens are comfortable expressing their concerns.
“I advocate for increased mental health awareness because I know what it’s like to feel afraid to express your feelings and not know how a person will react or if they are going to support you,” López says.
With potential annual staffing costs at each of the eight proposed centers ranging from $80,000 for a wellness navigator to $150,000 for a clinician, Sabbah notes one of the biggest challenges is finding ongoing funding.
Organizers are looking into several possible one-time and ongoing funding streams, including conducting a capital campaign. School districts will also help pay for the services from their budgets.
“It’s definitely a community-in-action project,” Sabbah says. “I think it’s going to be as fundamental as part of a school as the instructional aspect is. It’s that high in our priorities for us.”
The Santa Cruz County Office of Education (SCCOE) has not announced which schools will receive the first centers.