Berkeley High students rally around mental health attention after a friends death
An empty classroom at Berkeley High School. Last year, students advocated for more mental health resources. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/Catchlight

Amid rising student mental health needs, a new report was shared with the Berkeley school board last week outlining recommendations for the district to improve its mental health services.

In the last few years, young people across the country have begun to struggle more acutely with their mental health, and the problem has been devastating in Berkeley, too. Students are more anxious, more likely to avoid school and be chronically absent, according to the report, a trend that began well before the pandemic and has since worsened

Last year, after a Berkeley High student died by suicide, students began advocating for more mental health resources at school.

The report was commissioned as part of a $2.5 million state grant awarded in 2022. It was designed to address these challenges and improve Berkeley’s mental health services. 

Its findings, based on around 200 interviews with students, families and staff, offers 20 recommendations to improve Berkeley Unified’s mental health services. It was conducted by RDA Consulting, a firm that has also worked with the city of Berkeley’s mental health division.

Read the full report

The data shared in the report is striking.

One in five 11th graders at BUSD surveyed during the 2021-22 school year said they had seriously considered suicide in the past year. Nearly half of 11th graders said they felt so hopeless for multiple weeks that they stopped engaging in their usual activities. For younger students, the number of struggling students is only slightly lower. The data is pulled from the California Healthy Kids Survey.

The need to provide more preventative services, not just crisis care, tops the list of recommendations.

The report recommends creating a universal screener to identify students at risk of developing mental health challenges early, before the situation becomes a crisis, and ensuring students have access to time and space in the school day to develop mental wellness.

The report also recommends BUSD act immediately to:

  • Create a strategic plan that includes a definition of mental health and a process for incorporating community feedback. 
  • Assess how much is spent on mental health per student at each school.
  • Further assess the trend of increasing school avoidance, absenteeism and anxiety.

Families interviewed for the mental health needs assessment repeatedly said there is insufficient support for students with less severe mental health struggles, reflecting a nationwide shortage of mental health therapists

The report includes several bright spots.

Berkeley High has a health center staffed with four full-time therapists, who serve students with Medi-Cal insurance, a program supervisor and multiple counseling interns (three this year). Each elementary school in the district has a counselor, an improvement over previous years, when a few schools had part-time counselors. There are plans to hire a counselor specializing in substance use.

Students with private insurance can receive counseling for up to four sessions at the BHS Health Center. As of this year, Berkeley High opened a new wellness center, though it’s not fully operational yet.

The Health Center also runs a few support groups, including one for students who recently arrived in the country and another for those who are LGBTQ.

These services exceed what’s offered in many California school districts, but the report says the need for mental health care is still greater. 

Another positive the report found is that individual teachers already teach social emotional skills to students and several parents are involved mental health advocates. 

“One of the things they found in our strengths is that many of our staff already do attend to students’ mental health and wellness, but they feel like they don’t have the training that they need to do so,” Rosina Keren, the district’s mental health coordinator, said during the school presentation on Sept. 20.

But students and families interviewed for the report said they weren’t able to access services when they needed them unless they were experiencing a mental health crisis.

“[I] had a kid go to the health center and was told that unless she was actively suicidal, they couldn’t help her. What she took away was that if she tried to kill herself, she could get help,” one parent told interviewers for the needs assessment. 

Other families emphasized the need to hire more diverse counselors who can relate to students’ diverse experiences, especially more men, LGBTQ individuals and people of color.

“Families of color resoundingly shared that services and supports have not been focused towards honoring the diversity of student backgrounds and experiences and as a result a culture of exclusion and inequity persists,” according to the report.

The last time a mental health needs assessment was conducted was 2017. Some things have improved. BUSD hired a mental health coordinator, Rosina Karen, responsible for managing the district’s mental health services. There is also now a full-time counselor at every elementary school and a care-navigator, Carol Perez, who will support students with more severe mental health needs and can help families connect with services outside of school.

But some of the problems today are the same ones outlined six years ago — not enough resources to support students before a crisis and a need for better information and outreach so students know about the services available.

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Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...