Being put on hold for more than an hour with a mental health provider’s office, when there’s no guarantee that they’ll have an open appointment for a child in need, can be discouraging for anyone.
It’s a scenario Michael Paynter, the Santa Cruz County Office of Education’s executive director of student support services, says he hears about often, and it’s one that can lead to families not receiving the care they need.
School districts, county officials and community organizations have been working over the past several years to improve the system of care for students needing behavioral health services. With a $4 million grant from the California Mental Health Services and Oversight and Accountability Commission, they hope they can tackle this specific challenge: how to navigate through the maze of insurance requirements, long waits for appointments and simply not knowing who to call.
Michael Paynter, Santa Cruz County Office of Education Executive Director of Student Support Services
(Courtesy of County Office of Education/Karl Nielsen Photography)
The funding comes at a crucial time as families face economic instability and mental health challenges both exacerbated by the pandemic.
In 2019, 31% of Santa Cruz County students who participated in a California Healthy Kids Survey said they’d had feelings of chronic depression in the previous 12 months. Among the LGBTQ population, that figure was 64%, and 78% among students who identified as transgender. Officials are concerned about preliminary data from the survey’s 2021 results showing that those numbers have increased, signaling that the need for behavioral health treatment broadly has gone up.
“This [grant] was not based on a reaction to the pandemic,” Paynter told Lookout. “This was based on this issue already existing. I think everything is still true, it’s only gotten more extreme.”
At this point, the grant is still in its early planning stages. Paynter said he hopes to have the team hired over the next month or so and the program running by 2022. Coordination and contracts with the community organizations and school districts are still underway as well. Two superintendents told Lookout they hope the funding furthers the mental health systems they’ve strengthened over the past two years.
County officials have two major priorities for this grant: 1) fund behavioral health navigators to support students and families until they get services and 2) reduce stigma, particularly for students facing homelessness, chronically absent students and LGBTQ+ students.
The money will fund six behavioral health navigator positions and 10 “student worker” positions. Student workers will be young adults with lived experience who can help their peers connect to the behavioral health navigators, according to Paynter.
He said the navigators won’t be the ones providing the mental health treatment but instead will be more of a counselor or advocate who will help students and their families make the phone calls and understand insurance requirements, for example, until the student has gotten the help they need. Because the navigators aren’t the providers of the service, they won’t be licensed clinicians, Paynter told Lookout; rather, they’ll have therapeutic skills.
In addition to funding the student workers and navigators, the grant will fund additional learning on topics such as suicide prevention, substance use disorder, support for LGBTQ+ students, implicit bias and cultural responsivity for educators, students and caregivers.
“It’s uplifting the skills of school staff to both recognize and attend to any symptoms or indicators of things not looking like …….