A new partnership will make mental telehealth services available to over one million students in K-12 public schools in Los Angeles County. The Los Angeles County Office of Education (LACOE), LA Care Health Plan, Health Net, and the LA County Department of Mental Health will use school-based telehealth company, Hazel Health, to provide free mental health support for students, creating shorter wait times to connect with qualified therapists and enabling earlier intervention.
“Even before COVID, even before the pandemic, there were some worries—some signs in some of the data that was being collected in California at the state level—there were rising rates of depression and anxiety, as well as substance use in youth,” said Dr. Michael Brodsky, medical director for behavioral health and social services at LA Care Health Plan.
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According to the California Health Care Foundation’s 2022 Health Care Almanac, one in 14 children have an emotional disturbance that limits functioning in family, school, or community activities. Further data from California’s Master Plan for Kids’ Mental Health shows that over 284,000 youth in California cope with major depression, over 66% of youth with depression do not receive treatment, and suicide rates for kids ages 10 to 18 increased by 20% from 2019 to 2020.
Brodsky explained how the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated rates of mental health distress in youth through school closures, social isolation, loss of contact with supports, and a deadly and contagious virus that has led to grief and loss.
“With unprecedented levels of trauma and stressors facing our students, the need for timely and effective mental health support has never been greater,” Los Angeles Unified Superintendent Alberto M. Carvalho said. “The groundbreaking solutions in virtual care made possible by our partnership with Los Angeles County will dramatically increase our support capacity, ensuring all students are ready for the world.”
While Hazel Health provides school-based telehealth services across the country, they make a priority of recruiting therapists who are from communities of color, and therapists who speak more than one language. Over 50% of the providers at Hazel Health identify as BIPOC, while 44% of providers are bilingual and can serve individuals in at least 13 languages.
The project will be implemented across Los Angeles County in phases. Brodsky mentioned how Compton Unified School District was the first to go live. The next school district to go live will be Los Angeles Unified, and according to Brodsky, several school districts are lining up behind that.
Funding for the program is made available through the Department of Health Care Services’ Student Behavioral Health Incentive Program, or SBHIP, which was launched in January 2022. Both LA Care Health Plan and Health Net will allocate $24 million over the next two years to cover the price of services so they remain cost-free to students and families. LA Care Health Plan will pool together two thirds of the money, while Health Net will pool one third, both from funding they were awarded last year through SBHIP. The funds must be spent by Dec. 31st, 2024.
“This historic partnership will bring much-needed mental health support to our students across the country,” Los Angeles County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Debra Duardo said. “We continue to see the devastating impact the pandemic has had on our children’s mental well-being. This crisis has called us to collective action.”
Brodsky learned that Los Angeles public schools have three different levels of mental health or wellness interventions in place, thanks to Duardo, who made it a priority for schools to be trained in trauma-informed care, including teachers. Brodsky said the first tier focuses on education about bullying, stress, and depression, and the dangers of driving under the influence. The second tier places students who may be experiencing challenges in groups, with a counselor or teacher leading the focus group. The third tier is the highest level of intervention and provides one-on-one conversations.
“In many ways it’s very impressive,” Brodsky said. “It’s like schools have almost a public health type approach to mental health.”
Brodsky expects schools to be discussing the stigma behind mental health, the value of speaking with someone for assistance, and the value of having someone to confide in. He also expects parents to become informed, and has learned through school partners that the best time to inform parents is at the beginning of the school year, when parents are provided with a set of information about the new school year. Brodsky also stated that education for parents and students won’t be limited to the beginning of the school year.
“One of the statistics I heard that was so alarming as I was starting to think about this was that before COVID in the Los Angeles Unified School District, there were over 7,000 episodes of kids contemplating suicide in the schools in a single school year,” Brodsky said. “Seven thousand. I mean, there are only 180 school days in a school year. That number was just mind-boggling to me, and my hope is that for some of those kids who are either reaching that crisis stage or approaching that crisis stage have someone to talk to before things get so intense that either the ambulance needs to be called, or there needs to be a kind of crisis response from schools—and that’s what we’ve heard from teachers and administrators.”
While speaking with a school administrator to learn more about school-based youth mental health, Brodsky said that the administrator had to leave the middle of the conversation because a student was experiencing a crisis.
“It really drove it home,” Brodsky said.