Opinion | Mental health – a priority or not?

Sarah Belle Lin

The Wellness Center at Piedmont High School, seen here in a 2019 photo, provides mental health support to secondary school students.

Upon reading the article last week about the PUSD Wellness Center I’m left with both feelings of gratitude and a question. 

As a former Intern at the Wellness Center (WC) I became more aware of how heavily our community relies on its services. Wellness staff consisting of 5-7 clinicians in training, two clinical supervisors and a health clerk, support students daily through mental health challenges that range from mild to life-threatening. From academic and social stress to students who may be a danger to self and/or others, the WC is our hub.

What many people don’t know is that about half of the students who visit the WC are referred through Special Education to receive counseling services that have been written into their Individual Education Plans. For these students, PUSD is legally mandated to provide their mental health support. In most surrounding districts, special education students are provided these services through a school psychologist or (less commonly) through therapists contracted through community agencies, all of whom are compensated by the district. 

This brings me to my question: Considering that about half of WC services are dedicated to special education students, then why is it that the WC receives almost no funding through special education?

Upon reading the Exedra article stating that “The school board, district admin, teachers and parents (in public and private forums) recognize the need to prioritize the mental health of PUSD students,” I fail to see how the district is prioritizing mental health when it has managed to designate no budget to ensure appropriate services. When a student gets support at the WC, they most often meet with a clinician in training. These clinicians are unlicensed therapists who are accruing supervised work experience toward licensure as either a psychologist under the California Board of Psychology, or as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) or Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) under the California Board of Behavioral Sciences.

WC therapist staff is usually composed of a combination of trainees and practicum level students, who are pre-degree and have limited experience, as well as associates and psychology interns, who are either advanced graduate students or post-degree and bring ample prior experience as therapists. At other agencies, these more advanced clinicians in training receive a fair salary, while at the WC, they typically do not. When they do receive financial compensation, funding comes from donations raised by the parent-led WC Support Committee which provides only modest stipends. It is nearly impossible for Wellness Center supervisors to attract and retain experienced therapists in training when we do not have funding that allows us to match what is provided at other mental health agencies in our community.

Currently, the fundraising efforts of the WC Support Committee keep the WC afloat. Each year, depending on how much they are able to raise, WC supervisors must decide how to allocate the money in order to attract therapists who have a higher level of education and experience. Without appropriate funding, the supervisor’s only choice is to recruit trainee and practicum level therapists with no prior experience providing mental health services. In some years this is all they’ve been able to secure.

Working at the Wellness Center gave me enormous gratitude for the dedication and hard work it takes by Wellness staff to keep our kids safe. As a parent in the district, I have heard numerous times from high level admin that our children’s mental health is a priority. However, witnessing firsthand the lack of funding support the district is willing to offer, it is incredibly disheartening. When behaviors don’t match words, we live in an environment of mistrust. Let’s not just talk about our “priorities” — let’s follow them up with action.

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