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Local schools chosen to participate in new Blue Shield mental health program
San Diego Union-Tribune - 12/3/2019
Ten local schools are among a handful statewide chosen to participate in a new pilot program that brings mental health resources to campus, providing more immediate access to treatment and training designed to provide help as close as possible to where it's needed.
In collaboration with the state Department of Education and three different nonprofits, Blue Shield of California announced Monday that it has started a five-year, $10 million effort to extend one-on-one therapy, teacher mental health training and other resources to school districts in San Diego and Alameda counties.
Locally, the Sweetwater and Oceanside districts and Juvenile Court Community Schools are participating in the pilot program. Therapists were assigned to schools in September and are already meeting with students daily. Plans are in place to teach more than 6,000 teachers "mental first aid" techniques to help spot students who would benefit from additional counseling.
"The idea here is to impact both the students who are getting the services as well as their classmates," said Dr. Tanya Dansky, chief medical officer of Blue Shield's California Promise Health Plan.
It's clear that the need is significant. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that children ages 6 to 17 are being diagnosed with conditions such as anxiety and depression in greater and greater numbers. In 2003, 5.4 percent of kids in this age range had been diagnosed with either condition, and that number was up to 8.4 percent by 2012, the most recent year for which data was available.
The effects are more pronounced for those with fewer resources. One in five children living in poverty has been diagnosed with a mental, behavioral or developmental disorder, according to the CDC.
Blue Shield is working with Wellness Together, a California nonprofit that specializes in providing therapists in school settings, to staff individual campuses. Tayler Trotter, a licensed marriage and family therapist fresh from an internship at Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital, was assigned to work with students at Otay Ranch High School, which just happens to be her alma mater.
It was eye opening, she said, to return to campus a decade after graduation. The most noticeable change, she said, is the effect that social media has had on students. During her time at Otay Ranch, Myspace was the most prevalent social network, and computer access was necessary to participate. Now smartphones are ubiquitous, meaning that kids are living 24/7 in a crucible of constant communication.
"Definitely, social media is a big thing that has a lot of different effects," Trotter said. "For me, it has definitely been necessary to adapt and make sure I understand what they're dealing with."
Since September, she has been receiving referrals from school staff. So far, everything from anxiety to anger management difficulties have sent students her way, and she meets with each referral once per week for up to 10 weeks. The campus is also getting started on group therapy sessions.
Cognitive behavioral therapy, such as identifying triggers for low mood and anger, is a common resource for many of the 20 clients she's currently working with, as is basic education in how such therapy, and mental health care in general, works. Most, she finds, don't have much experience with these subjects.
"A lot of these students have never talked with someone about these kinds of things, so that can be an adjustment," Trotter said.
Though it might seem like students would be reluctant to see a therapist at school where they're around other students, she said most don't seem to be trying to hide the fact that they're getting help. Such nonchalance suggests that recent often celebrity-driven destigmatization efforts may be having some effect. While the kids seem to be relatively open to the idea of receiving mental health care at school, parents often have a little more difficulty, Trotter said. Many, she said, view a therapist referral as commentary on their parenting.
"We have to break down what we're doing, what the process is, and that we're just offering a little bit more help, not criticism," Trotter said. "The point is that we're going to find a way to work together to help the student."
Dr. Dansky, the Blue Shield medical director, said the pilot program is designed to study the effects of pushing mental health services closer to where they're needed. Many studies indicate that the majority of diagnosed mental health problems go untreated, and the hope is that making therapy easier to access might result in significant gains at critical moments in students' educational careers.
Making those kinds of gains won't come immediately, which is why the insurance company has committed to a five-year run.
"We know that it will take some time to see changes happen, and we're not necessarily looking for a quick fix," Dansky said. "By having this combination of both training the teachers to recognize the signs and signals as early as possible and to have access right there on campus, we're excited to see what can be accomplished."
Blue Shield is collaborating with researchers at UC San Francisco to study the program's effectiveness.
San Diego County campuses involved in the initiative include:
Eastlake High School Otay Ranch High SchoolSan Ysidro High School Castle Park Middle School El Camino High School Oceanside High School Jefferson Middle School King Middle School ECB 37 High North County Technology and Science Academy
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