“LAUSD affirms the importance of teaching students to be both physically and mentally healthy by creating and maintaining a school environment that promotes academic achievement and helps promote a healthy community. LAUSD recognizes the connection between academic achievement and student wellness.” (LAUSD Blueprint for Wellness p. 23)“A student’s social emotional character and overall school climate can powerfully affect whether students learn and thrive in schools and their communities.” (LAUSD Blueprint for Wellness p. 5)The Need for School Mental Health Services in LAUSDShocking statistics tell the local and national story of the need for mental health services for students, families and school communities. Both within LAUSD and across the nation, an overwhelming number of students come to school every day with a myriad of adversities and mental health1 problems that compromise their ability to learn and achieve academically. Research suggests that schools function as the de facto mental health system for children and adolescents2. Nationally, only 50% of youth in need receive any mental health services3. In California, three out of four children with mental health needs do not receive treatment despite having health care coverage4. Of those receiving care, up to 80% receive it in a school setting5. More than 25% of American youth experience a serious traumatic event by their 16th birthday, and many children suffer multiple and repeated traumas including: abuse, maltreatment and neglect; traumatic loss; serious accidental injury; experiencing or witnessing violence in neighborhoods, schools and homes; treatment for life-threatening illness (medical trauma); accidents and fires; disasters and terrorism. Twenty-one percent of youth aged 13-18 have a mental illness that causes significant impairment in their daily life, 50% of all mental illnesses begin by age 14, and 75% by age 24.7 In a 2013-2014 screening of 572 LAUSD students, 88% reported experiencing three or more traumatic events in their lifetime, 55% of whom showed symptoms of PTSD, depression, or anxiety.The above statistics are startling for many reasons. Within the context of the nation’s second largest school district, perhaps the most compelling of those is that mental wellbeing is an essential component of success in the classroom, and, if students are experiencing adversity and mental health issues without access to appropriate support and services, they won’t be able to learn, achieve, and graduate from high school ready for college and/or a career. In addition, the staff and administrators who are dedicated to support LAUSD students in their success need the support of qualified professionals to address needs ranging from students who become disengaged from learning because of trouble at home, to students with special needs who are experiencing emotional and behavioral disturbances, to violent and traumatic incidents in the community or on the campus.For more than 80 years, LAUSD has been a national leader in the investment of mental health services in schools; in order to achieve District goals, it is a strategic imperative, now more than ever, to continue to be leaders in prevention, screening, and treatment. LAUSD School Mental Health (SMH) has a base of over 300 dedicated and experienced psychiatric social workers (PSWs). As members of the same large, complex organization, PSWs are internal partners who bring a deep understanding of context, procedures and resources within school communities and administration. Being integrated into the school and district community facilitates access to the staff, students and families whom they support. As members of an integrated educational team, SMH professionals understand the link between student mental health and academic achievement. In addition, SMH is uniquely positioned to prevent and respond to crisis which complements the efforts of school leadership to maintain and improve school climate.Why mental health services within the school community?Schools are a natural environment in which child and adolescent mental health concerns can be identified and addressed. Therefore, families are more likely to utilize mental or physical health services when those services are located on the school campus. This facilitates ease of access and reduces the stigma associated with obtaining mental health services. Additionally, the presence of SMH professionals and services are beneficial to the school as a whole, by contributing to positive academic, behavioral, and social-emotional outcomes as they relate to safety, relationships, teaching, and learning.Childhood is a vital time for promoting positive mental health and supporting at-risk families in order to avert the early onset of some mental health disorders and help reduce the severity of others. To reduce the potential burden and lifelong difficulties of untreated mental health needs, it is critical that mental health problems in young children be identified and addressed early.Scientific research provides an understanding of how early adversity harms the developing brains and bodies of children. When students are impacted by adverse childhood experiences, toxic stress, or trauma, their ability to fully concentrate and focus on the instructional program is negatively affected. By addressing students’ trauma responses and helping them to develop positive coping, resilience, social-emotional skills, and healthy relationship-building skills, SMH professionals play a key role in supporting students to learn and achieve.Investment in mental health services—including prevention, early intervention, and acute services— positively impacts measurable outcomes for students, such as improved attendance and GPA; increased rates of high school graduation and reading ability; decreased suspension and expulsion; and reduced involvement with the criminal justice system and out-of-home child welfare placements. Prevention, early detection, and intervention help preempt more severe mental health needs later in life.In addition to supporting students and families directly, SMH professionals play a key role in training and supporting educators by helping to address students’ mental health concerns, linking students to community resources, and fostering connections within the school environment for vulnerable students in need of extra support. They also support teachers by promoting self-care strategies and techniques to improve classroom dynamics and reduce teacher burnout.
1. Mental health in childhood and adolescence is defined by the achievement of expected developmental cognitive, social, and emotional milestones and by secure attachments, satisfying social relationships, and effective coping skills. Mentally healthy children and adolescents enjoy a positive quality of life; function well at home, in school, and in their communities; and are free of disabling symptoms of psychopathology. (Center for Disease Control and Prevention)
2. Burns, BJ, EJ Constello, A. Angold, and D. Tweed. “Children’s Mental Health Service Use Across Service Sectors.” Health Affairs 14.3 (1995):149-59.
3. Padilla-Frausto, Imelda, David Grant, May Aydin, and Sergio Aguilar-Gaxiola. Three Out of Four Children with Mental Health Needs in California Do Not Receive Treatment Despite Having Health Care Coverage. UCLA Center for Health Policy Research. July 2014
4. Mental Health Exacts Heavy Toll, Beginning in Youth (2005 June 6). The National Institutes of Mental Health.5. Merikangas KR, Avenevoli S, Costello EJ, Koretz D, Kessler RC. The National Comorbidity Survey Adolescent Supplement (NCS-A): I. Background and Measures. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 2009;48(4):367-369. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2736858/
Joel Cisneros, LCSW
333 S. Beaudry Ave. 29th Floor
Los Angeles, CA 90017
P: (213) 241-3841