Supporting mental health in PUSD

Social workers focus on preventative interventions, engaging diverse population

Mental health support services have been on the minds of Pleasanton Unified School District officials, particularly as student stress persists and remains a hot topic throughout the district.

A report on such services was spotlighted at a PUSD board meeting last month, in particular responding to some of the results from the California Healthy Kids Survey released earlier this year. While the panel of social workers presenting the report highlighted a wide array of programs, at the heart of what they do is working to normalize the idea of mental health treatment.

"A lot of times our work with our families consists of dealing with stigmas that are surrounding mental health," Elise Greenaway, one of the panelists, said at the Oct. 23 board meeting. "A lot of our families are uncomfortable with the idea of their kids going to therapy, and concerned about what that looks like for them."

Marsha McInnis, founder and past president of the Tri-Valley's chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), said that a proactive, trained school staff is crucial for teens and children in need of support.

"From my experience listening to many parents, most who reach out to us are in serious crisis with their child/teen and are needing networking, resources and support around what they are living with," she said. "For many, parents are trying find the appropriate level of care with the insurance they have.

"Seeking help needs a proactive school staff, proactive parents, availability of openings with a mental health professional, a mental health program at schools, a school board that understands the mental health challenges and finding evidence-based solutions."

According to Kathleen Rief, director of student services for the district, social workers were not present in PUSD schools until the district received federal funding through the "Climate Transformation Grant" in 2014. They support students and families at all educational levels, and during the 2017-18 school year they served 250 separate students, who had been referred to their department by school staff.

In addition to having English-speaking social workers, Noemi Almaraz serves as a Spanish-speaking social worker for grades pre-K through 12th, though her position is funded through the district's Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP).

While they support all students, the district's social workers also provide more targeted services for at-risk students, particularly those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, in special education, homeless youth, those with truancy issues and those struggling with mental health or substance abuse.

The California Healthy Kids Survey is administered to students in grades five, seven, nine and 11 every two years. At the October meeting, the five-person panel honed in on results surrounding chronic sadness and depression, along with students who reported having considered suicide.

According to the survey, the percentage of students reporting chronic sadness and depression increased with age: for the 2017-18 school year, 16% of seventh-graders reported feelings of chronic sadness and helplessness, with that number rising to 22% for ninth-graders and 30% for those in the 11th grade.

The reported number also went up from the 2015-16 to the 2017-18 school years, increasing 1% at the seventh-grade level, 3% for ninth-graders and 4% in 11th grade.

Last school year did see a slight decrease in the percentage of 12th-grade students who reported having considered suicide over the previous year, going down from 17% to 15% between the two survey administration cycles.

Mental health services, the panelists said, are divided into three separate tiers.

Tier 1 aims to address the broader student population, through classes, listing crisis numbers on student ID cards, staff development on suicide prevention and mental health, enhanced crisis response procedures and through a joint partnership with the city of Pleasanton for their Community Education Series -- they recently screened an independent film called "Angst" as a way to raise awareness about anxiety.

The second tier narrows the pool reached, focusing on some of the department's targeted and at-risk groups, through methods such as providing more restorative alternatives to suspension for substance-related offenses, additional social emotional resources for counselors, connecting students and families to outside counseling services and mental health presentations at Mariachi Night.

And the third tier -- the tip of the pyramid -- supports the most serious cases, through solidifying psychiatric hospitalization re-entry procedures, behavior contracts to connect students to mental health supports and individualized case management by social workers.

While these final steps are crucial to have in place, they hope by working on preventative intervention to decrease the need for reactionary measures.

The ensuing conversation with the board ranged from data-oriented questions from trustees to thoughts on the best ways to support the diverse set of families living in the district.

"We have a lot of different cultures here in PUSD and some people that have recently moved here from other countries are not familiar with mental health services and the normality of that," Greenaway said.

"So a big job for us is to normalize mental health treatment and help encourage families to seek that out for their students," she added. "And help them to find a way that's going to be sustainable for them, either through their insurance or through a community provider that can provide sliding scale, income-based services."

On-site parent liaisons are instrumental in this mission, she added.

Liaisons act as a go-between for families and their children's school, and can serve as intermediaries when cultural and linguistic barriers exist. Right now, they have liaisons who speak Punjabi and a few other Indian dialects, Korean, Spanish and Mandarin, and documents can be translated into Spanish, Mandarin and Korean -- the shared cultural understanding and language facilitates conversations about why treatment is important.

Document translation is critical, Greenaway said, in cases where students are hospitalized. "We recognize that it's really important information for that to be in their first language," she said.

Trustee Steve Maher asked the panelists how many "5150s" they saw last year -- or an involuntary confinement of someone suspected to be a danger to themselves. From August to October in both 2017 and 2018, the district saw a total of 13, said Ashley Sprader, coordinator of Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) for the district. The number does tend to go up in the spring, she confirmed when Maher asked.

"We looked at that and we tried to graph, and see if there are any trends, what can we do, are there certain grade levels, gender, what are we looking at, how many AP classes, all types of things we tried to look at," Sprader said. "And to be honest, there wasn't a true trend attached to all of that."

Trustee Joan Laursen noted that social media seems to add a whole other level to the anxiety and wayward emotions that naturally accompany adolescence.

"It feels like social media and the barrage of information -- it magnifies and exacerbates the natural teenage angst that we all have experienced, right?" she said.

"Somehow we've got to get a handle on helping students understand how toxic this can be for folks who are already in a vulnerable space," she added.

Sprader agreed, saying that while resources about social media toxicity were available on their website, they were looking to deliver the information in a different format as well, possibly through a screening of "Like," a companion film to the previously-shown "Angst."

Trustees and staff alike also highlighted the importance of peer advocates, both informal and through established school programs -- along with the need to support the "advocate."

"My experience is that when a student has a problem, they first go to their friend, and their friend serves as their psychologist, that tries desperately to help," Board President Mark Miller said. "And at some point it's too much. And do they know who to go to?"

For more information, visit the PUSD website at

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7 people like this
Posted by PleasantonParent
a resident of Vintage Hills
on Nov 20, 2018 at 4:45 pm

Pleasanton Unified needs to wake up and start taking mental health issues more seriously. The statistics mentioned above are alarming, yet what is being done to address them?! An integral part of providing education to the students in our community is also providing mental wellness help as well. PUSD should take note to the positive changes that were made in Piedmont, and use their Wellness Center idea as a model for our own district. Giving the students a place to feel safe, someone to talk to in a time of distress, or resources that might not be provided at home would be beneficial to ALL students.

Here is the link the the article of the Piedmont Wellness Center that was founded in 2007.
Web Link

4 people like this
Posted by Kathleen Ruegsegger
a resident of Vintage Hills
on Nov 21, 2018 at 9:30 am

Kathleen Ruegsegger is a registered user.

PP, PAUSD adopted a wellness center model. There also work closely with other organizations in the community. There is a web page with links to multiple services: Web Link And their Welness Center information: Web Link

Here is what I found doing a search on mental health on PUSD’s website: Web Link

Of course, we can always do more.

5 people like this
Posted by Pleasanton Parent
a resident of Birdland
on Nov 21, 2018 at 9:57 am

Had a Child in Special ED that had to go to Village because of her Mental Health Issues. Terrible school and rude staff to children that I observed and the school grounds an rooms were a filthy mess. No excuse for a town like ours.

12 people like this
Posted by Brittney
a resident of Jensen Tract
on Nov 21, 2018 at 10:41 am

I volunteer / answer the SUICIDE/TALK/Crisis line calls and 90% of the time I talk to a student high school age or younger it isn't that the don't know where to go for help/resources, it's that their parents are ashamed or dismiss their depression as not a big deal and they don't get them help even when they ask for it - so I like the 3 Tiered approach but believe a lot of education and work needs to be done with the families themselves as well as the schools.

4 people like this
Posted by Harold A Maio
a resident of another community
on Nov 21, 2018 at 11:17 am

----A lot of times our work with our families consists of dealing with stigmas that are surrounding mental health

More accurately:

----A lot of times our work with our families consists of dealing with people taught stigmas.

2 people like this
Posted by Cristina Moidel
a resident of Downtown
on Nov 21, 2018 at 9:17 pm

I'd like to see more conversations about everything that impacts overall health - food/gut function, sleep, relationships, creative expression, movement, etc. We are missing opportunities to address underlying and contributing factors.

4 people like this
Posted by PleasantonParent
a resident of Vintage Hills
on Nov 21, 2018 at 9:27 pm

Kathleen, I grew up in Pleasanton, taught in the schools here, and now have kids in PUSD. I can tell you from my 30+ years of experience that the district's "so called" wellness model is failing and all the recent suicides at the high school are proof.

Pleasanton Parent, the district has failed my child as well. My son has extreme anxiety due to an incident on the playground where another child hit my son. No services were offered to my child and we have spent thousands of dollars on outside therapy to help our son cope with the outcome of the incident.

Brittney, I couldn't agree more!! A lot of work needs to be done with both the parents and the schools because it needs to be a collaborative effort.

Harold, YES! Let's help get rid of the terrible stigmas regarding mental health issues!

6 people like this
Posted by Pleasanton Parent
a resident of Pleasanton Meadows
on Nov 22, 2018 at 9:10 pm

Why is mental health a school responsibility? We take our children to doctors for physical health, we take our kids to dentists for oral health? Why would we take them to schools for mental health? We dont and shouldn't.

Now schools should acommodate mental health plans perscribed by a mental health professional, but they should be responsible for identifying, diagnosis, treatment, etc.

We tax our schools enough already, keep all health care to professionals, not schools.

1 person likes this
Posted by Ennis
a resident of Pleasanton Valley
on Nov 23, 2018 at 12:16 pm

Ennis is a registered user.

Why would we take them to schools for mental health? We dont and shouldn't.

Now schools should acommodate mental health plans perscribed by a mental health professional, but they should be responsible for identifying, diagnosis, treatment, etc.

We tax our schools enough already, keep all health care to professionals, not schools.

PP - first, I'm assuming that the "Now schools" statement was meant to be finished with a question mark so it makes sense? Second, schools are the front-line in terms of identifying issues -they see these kids every day and can notice changes and have relationships with students. The sad truth is that there is a % of the parent population who don't interact with their kids for whatever reason, refuse to acknowledge that their child is, at may be, at risk, or that they themselves are a significant part of the problem. Complete diagnosis and treatment are, as should be, left to the professionals and I don't think anyone in PUSD would act otherwise. I have had two kids go through HP and AV and the counseling staff and teachers have demonstrated repeatedly just how engaged and involved they are with the students as well as concerned for their well-being both now and in the future -they are the ones who saw my children in this environment and that my kids would also talk to. It's not 'taxing' to PUSD, it's part of the educational process that comes with the job and I've not spoken to an educator in this district who hasn't embraced this aspect as part of their job.

Lastly, our schools, teachers, and counselors are one of the focal points in this community, and provide so much more to so many students than just the educational facet in lives.

1 person likes this
Posted by Pleasanton Parent
a resident of Pleasanton Meadows
on Nov 23, 2018 at 1:36 pm

Pleasanton Parent is a registered user.

Nope - was meant to be a statement not a question. We philosophically disagree on the function and responsibilities of schools. Schools teach, not treat.

Again, i agree schools need to have some capability around supporting physical and mental needs, but they are not primary treatment centers.

Like this comment
Posted by BobB
a resident of Another Pleasanton neighborhood
on Nov 23, 2018 at 2:05 pm

BobB is a registered user.


Are you trying to live in the 1920's? Schools need to do much more these days.

2 people like this
Posted by Pleasanton Parent
a resident of Pleasanton Meadows
on Nov 23, 2018 at 3:40 pm

Pleasanton Parent is a registered user.

No im not, and i agree they need more, but they need to remain core to teaching.
parenting/healthcare/housing/tucking kids in to bed at night dont belong in schools.
You want to bring trades back to schools as electives, im in. You want to add engineering or finance to younger ages i fully support.

1 person likes this
Posted by On the front lines
a resident of Another Pleasanton neighborhood
on Nov 24, 2018 at 10:41 am

I work in SPED in a neighboring district. The number of high school students with mental health issues is staggering. The district needs to serve these students’ needs, and these diagnoses manifest themselves most profoundly at school. There is a HS class at one school that serves students with bi-polar, anxiety, depression and OCD. There is access to a psychologist all day long. Academics are modified in hopes that these students can, with support, earn a HS diploma - even if they can’t drag themselves out of bed until 11am due to depression. THE CLASS IS FULL. There is a waiting list. There is a mental health crisis going on right now - and assuming parents will “deal with it outside of school” is just not recognizing the scope of the issue. School don’t diagnose, but they refer. Most parents don’t know about resources that are available.
If schools don’t provide services on-site they need to pay for students to attend private programs offering mental health services which cost taxpayers huge $$$.

9 people like this
Posted by just me
a resident of Sycamore Heights
on Nov 24, 2018 at 5:14 pm

I think facebook/snapchat and other social network have a lot to do with their depression.. In the old days, the peer pressure relatively end after school ends everyday.. but now they constantly talk on social net work, family has less influences on them.. and it only get worse. Thats my personal opinions

10 people like this
Posted by Pleasanton Parent
a resident of Pleasanton Meadows
on Nov 24, 2018 at 5:15 pm

On the front lines,
Yes, we do have a mental health issue. Again, schools should accomodate (ie what you described, modified classes/access to a counselor) but we should not place the responsibility to diagnose and treat on the schools. Thats also an unfair burden on the teachers and taxpayers.
Schools also shouldn't foot the bill for private sessions. Again that is not their responsibility nor taxpayers. Your premise is this is something schools are obligated to provide, and theyre not.
Also. What are these kids to do in the summer months? Mental health is a school year issue only? Come on. Lets be realistic and fair with our expectations on our schools. Otherwise we're going to dilute what a school is supposed to do.....kind of like BART trying to solve the housing issue in ca

2 people like this
Posted by Tri-Valley YMCA
a resident of Another Pleasanton neighborhood
on Nov 29, 2018 at 11:37 am

There is irony here in that the former Tri-Valley YMCA was building out a family and mental health service in their new offices next to the Fairgrounds. We had developed a great space, raised funding to support access for all those in need without financial means, hired a top-notch therapist, and had started to help kids and families. Then the hostile takeover occurred by the YMCA of the Central Bay (Oakland) and these badly needed services were shuttered as being not profitable.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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