Supporting student mental health

County offices of education can help diversify and improve school-based services

County offices of education play an important role in helping local schools improve and expand mental health supports for students. In Solano County, officials are working to ensure mental health and wellness services are as diverse as the students who rely on them.

“Solano County Office of Education provides a robust collection of resources to support Solano schools in enhancing school safety plans with emphasis on preparedness, prevention, intervention, response and recovery. Mental health and wellness supports for students are key components to prevention, intervention and response,” said Solano Superintendent Lisette Estrella-Henderson. “Addressing student mental health and wellness as well as school safety should include systems of interventions and supports that involve all school employees, public safety and other cross-sector partners such as county behavioral health, students, parents and guardians. Each child is unique and their barriers to learning and life experiences are unique, so there is no one-size-fits-all approach to supporting the mental health and wellness needs of every student. Diversifying our supports allows us to be more flexible and responsive to the specific needs of each child.”

students sitting outside and laughing

On July 26, Solano County supervisors approved a contract to provide the Friday Night Live youth development program through June 30, 2023; approved a contract amendment to continue implementation of the Mental Health Student Services Act grant program through Aug. 31, 2024; and approved the submission of a grant application for the Investment in Mental Health Wellness Grant Program for Children and Youth in collaboration with Solano COE to support infrastructure for youth mobile crisis support teams.

The county office provides the school-based mobile crisis services and screening/assessment services through a contract with Solano County Behavioral Health. Partnerships and training are crucial aspects to guaranteeing students have the resources they need, any time they need them. Last year alone, the county answered nearly 300 crisis calls, Estrella-Henderson said.

“The services are being implemented in collaboration with the county, school districts and school sites, local police departments and community partners. Additionally, Solano COE has hired and trained clinicians as crisis specialists to respond to crisis situations on K-12 school campuses serving children and youth experiencing a mental health crisis,” she continued. “Calls for service to school sites are frequent, demonstrating a significant need for mental health supports. The mission is to de-escalate situations, linking families to necessary services, and supporting the coordination of care.”

Ideally, the goal is to make sure students do not reach that breaking point. To date, 47 school-based wellness centers have been opened in Solano County, helping to position schools to better serve the social-emotional needs of students.

The wellness centers are intended to create a positive culture around mental health on school campuses by reducing stigma and providing culturally inclusive spaces for students to decompress, partaking in groups or workshops, art, meditation, music and check-ins with trusted adults. Wellness centers also act as access points for students who need higher level services, such as suicide prevention supports.

Professional development

While many mental health programs are school-based, COEs play a significant part in providing professional learning opportunities. For example, the Mental Health Student Services Act (MHSSA) grant award of $4 million will help expand mental health services and supports for students in K-12 schools across Solano County.

“With this funding, Solano COE provides trainings in suicide prevention, behavior management and more,” Estrella-Henderson said. “Solano COE also provides student social-emotional learning workshops for classrooms and small groups around social skills, anger management, anti-bullying, safe social media, etc.”

And as more districts are adopting Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) — an evidence-based, tiered framework for supporting students’ behavioral, academic, social-emotional and mental health — Estrella-Henderson said it is important to help districts implement it with fidelity. When that happens, PBIS improves social-emotional competence, academic success and school culture.

Students also receive training through programs like Friday Night Live, which aim to inspire the next generation of public health leaders through advocacy and leadership development led by experts in the field of youth supports, peer education, public health and environmental prevention. The programs reflect a public health model of affecting health-related behaviors by emphasizing the broader physical, social, cultural and institutional forces that contribute to the problems within a community.

“Our team’s focus on health equity and Youth-led Participatory Action Research, an innovative approach to positive youth and community development based in social justice principles in which young people are empowered to conduct systemic research to improve communities and institutions intended to serve them,” Estrella-Henderson said. “Engaging youth within their communities, schools, organizations and social groups helps to bring about the positive change young leaders are working toward.”