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Students Fight for Holistic Mental Health Support in California High Schools

Two students volunteering at a booth speak to two individuals looking at pamphlets that read "Schools Not Prisons."
Members of the Youth Liberty Squad, a leadership program where students are empowered to engage in social justice activism with the ACLU, table at an event. | ACLU Southern California
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South Central L.A.-native Catherine Estrada felt like she was suffocating at the height of the pandemic last year. Estrada, a junior at Alliance Collins Family College-Ready High School, was already navigating the constant pressure to succeed in school while her mother received medical treatment in Mexico. When the pandemic upended daily life in March 2020, everything in Estrada’s world — her connections with her peers, her quality time with her family and her ability to stay on top of her classes — all took a downward tumble.

"It just became very obvious what the issue was," Estrada said, explaining how the intense challenges of the pandemic coupled with a lack of support services created a full-blown mental health crisis for her. "There was little to no help available. It was beyond overwhelming."

For Estrada and other Black and Latino Californian students, holistic, socio-emotional support services like mental health providers, individualized flexibility with coursework, trauma-informed care and funding for arts programs were already scarce even before the pandemic.

According to a national American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) report, California has the third lowest counselor-to-student ratio in the country, with an average of 682 students per counselor. In a state with about 80 percent students of color, 96 percent of Californians went to school on campuses where counselor caseloads did not meet the American School Counselor Association’s 250:1 recommendation.

Starting in April 2020, Estrada and other members of the ACLU's Southern California Youth Liberty Squad took action. The Youth Liberty Squad is a program where students obtain leadership skills to become social justice activists in their schools and communities.

Three students in matching gray ACLU SoCal T-shirts sitting on grass eating Subway.
Students in the ACLU's Youth Liberty Squad have been advocating for more arts programming and holistic approaches to mental health in their schools. | ACLU Southern California

To address the mental health issues they were experiencing and witnessing during the pandemic, the students conducted a survey, collecting feedback from 653 students in 68 California schools. The report they compiled showed that students felt lonely, overwhelmed, anxious and stressed during the remote school year. Results aligned with a statewide ACLU student wellness report that surveyed over 1,200 students in April 2020 and in April 2021. Results showed that 66% of students reported feeling that their mental health was negatively impacted by the pandemic. In the past year, 57% of students said that they did not get help from a counselor or therapist.

“We were literally trapped in a room with one screen and forced to understand polynomials at a time when we thought the world was about to end. How were we supposed to feel?” asked Estrada, now an eighteen-year-old freshman at University of California, Los Angeles. “I just wanted somebody to listen,” she said.

Youth Wrote A Letter to Governor Newsom

In May 2020, the Youth Liberty Squad wrote a letter to Governor Gavin Newsom, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond and other officials. Among their nineteen demands were calls to action that echoed ACLU campaigns to invest in more school counselors, psychologists, nurses and social workers. They also called for a reallocation of illegally spent funds that were supposed to be reserved for counselors for foster youth, English learners and low-income students but that had instead gone to school police officers and security.

While nationwide research shows that trained mental health providers in schools can improve social climates and produce positive academic outcomes, police presence in schools can be harmful, according to some studies. Black students and students with disabilities in California are referred to law enforcement at a disproportionately higher rate than white students and students without disabilities; in a Los Angeles Unified School district survey, only 35 percent of Black students said they felt safer with police presence in schools. Some teacher unions, students and advocates nationwide, including in California, have been saying that police officers can make students less safe, especially when they deploy punitive, disciplinary actions. Yet nearly 400,000 K-12 students in the state attend a school that has a police officer, but not a counselor.

In October 2020, the ACLU Youth Liberty Squad launched petitions for #CounselorsNotCops and #ArtsNotArrests.

An emphasis on the arts and community-based approaches to mental health were also included in their letter to Governor Newsom and Superintendent Thurmond.

Eight months after the group sent their letter and presented their findings to the California State Legislature and the California Department of Education, Estrada said they received very little response to their demands. Superintendent Thurmond’s office hosted a Support Circle a few days after receiving the letter, but Estrada said that the meeting, while appreciated, was nowhere near enough.

Catherine Estrada in a black mask with people marching with signs behind her.
ACLU Youth Liberty Squad member Catherine Estrada was part of a group that wrote a letter to Governor Newsom demanding more school-based mental health support for California students. | ACLU Southern California

In January 2021, she wrote an article on the ACLU website, again asking that Newsom fund school-based mental health.

"I was mad," Estrada said. “Students were making themselves heard, but who was listening?”

Mental Health and Healing Through the Arts

One of the reasons Estrada and other students advocate for mental health through the arts is because it can help students become more attuned with themselves, allowing them to better cope with stress from the outside world. For Estrada, now a university student, mental health comes through acting. The Afro-Latina plays a young Yessika on the Netflix show Gentefied.

"What acting does for me, writing or painting can do for another person," Estrada said. "There’s a lot to be learned in school academically, but there’s also way more to be learned about oneself specifically, and that’s a kind of holistic learning. We’re spending twelve plus years in these institutions and we come out with what sort of identity?"

Students reported music, dance and media as three of the most supportive and healing activities during the pandemic, but only 39% of California students are enrolled in arts programs. Though arts education is required by California’s legislative code, over 80% of California schools do not provide full arts access which includes dance, theater, visual arts, music, media and entertainment. Though there has been a decline in arts education programs for students in low-income communities and Title I schools over the past several years, studies show that these activities can help kids foster creativity and improve mental health, self-confidence and life skills.

Youth Liberty Squad member and high school senior Lizbeth Zambrano-Sanchez never saw herself as an artistic person. But after feeling an immense amount of stress and purposelessness during the beginning stages of the pandemic, she started delving into painting and creating mixed media collages.

Zambrano-Sanchez and another student holding a sign at school as part of their organizing work with the ACLU Youth Liberty Squad.
Lizbeth Zambrano-Sanchez, a current member of the ACLU's youth group, found art as an escape during the early months of the pandemic and advocates for expanded arts programing in schools. | Lizbeth Zambrano-Sanchez

"It was a way to de-stress myself," Zambrano-Sanchez said. "We were on Zoom five days a week. By being able to engage in art, students were able to feel seen and feel like they had a bigger purpose."

That’s why she believes that it is necessary for leaders to support arts programs in schools; it helps students express themselves when they have very few other outlets to go to.

New Policies for School-Based Mental Health

This past October, Governor Gavin Newsom signed bills pertaining to mental and behavioral health. SB 14 allows for excused absences due to mental and behavioral health issues. SB 224 requires mental health to be taught in health education classes for middle and high school students. AB 309 requires that the California Department of Education take input from teachers, administrators, students and parents to establish protocols for school staff to refer students to mental health support. California assembly member and bill co-author Jesse Gabriel said that the protocols will be evidence-based, as well as culturally and linguistically appropriate and disability-friendly.

"The idea [behind the protocols] is to have a toolkit that provides guidance so that when a teacher, counselor, or employee encounters a student that’s exhibiting signs of a mental health issue, they don’t have to guess what to do in that situation," Gabriel said.

Earlier this year, Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) leaders approved a plan to eliminate a third of the district's school police officers as a response to student rallying cries after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020. They cut the school police budget by $25 million, diverting funds to add mental health providers, and they created a plan to hire mental health counselors at 53 schools with large populations of Black students.

While student activists see the new bills and LAUSD initiatives as a step in the right direction, it’s too soon to tell how much impact they will have, and if they will be enough.

A Focus on Community

Aubrey Harrison is a psychologist in D.C. who works with the MedStar Georgetown Center for for Wellbeing in School Environments. When it comes to mental health, Harrison said that some approaches like mindfulness and other coping strategies need to be taught differently, and in more culturally-relevant ways, when supporting low-income students of color. Educators should also be having real conversations about the trauma students of color are experiencing, and learning to create trauma-informed environments, he said.

"We have to move from this individualistic perspective, to a more community, larger system approach," Harrison said.

Zambrano-Sanchez found that coming together with other youth and adults in her community to advocate for action on climate change policy at the state level brought her hope and a sense of fulfillment.

"It brought me a lot of joy and a greater sense of purpose," Zambrano-Sanchez said. "Students of color need a way to find an outlet. We want to heal together."

Members of the ACLU Liberty Squad working on a large poster about education.
From political advocacy to working in their school communities, students in the ACLU's youth group are taking concrete steps to create better learning environments for all. | ACLU Southern California

Talking to students, Harrison has learned that they want to feel connected to each other and to people in their communities. They also need to have space to decompress and be heard.

He noted that it’s important to acknowledge and validate mental health issues.

"It’s holding circles that help people view themselves as not only having [experiences of adversity], but also as having the power to change those things," Harrison said.

Harrison said the ACLU Youth Liberty Squad students are doing the work.

"They are taking their experiences and trying to figure out how they can be change agents, but we as adults have to be supportive of that and speak up."

Learn more about youth mental health at Well Beings is public media initiative that addresses the critical health needs of Americans through broadcast content, original digital content, and impactful local events.

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