Pleasanton Weekly

News - January 14, 2011

Schools cope with student mental health issues

Depression, drugs, alcohol and stress blamed

by Glenn Wohltmann

Suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people 15 to 24 in the U.S., second only to auto accidents. With recent suicides in young adults from Pleasanton, it's become clear that it's not always "someone else's kid" that's in danger.

On any given day, an ambulance will pull up at one of Pleasanton's high schools, out of sight of others, to protect the identity of a student deemed at risk of harming himself or another, what police call a "5150."

It's no surprise, then, that Pleasanton schools are doing all they can to be both proactive and preventative, in the words of Kevin Johnson, the district's senior director of pupil services.

"There are some students, as there are adults in the community, that are dealing with depression issues and we want to help," Johnson said.

More ambulances are being called these days, but Johnson said that's chiefly because of a heightened awareness about the risk to students.

"If we have any concern about any student being potentially harmful to themselves or others, we'll call the police," he said, explaining that the police, not the schools, make the determination.

But Johnson said the school district doesn't want to wait for a student to get to the point where he or she needs intervention from the Police Department.

"We have all kinds of different counseling groups," he said, "to deal with specific issues."

That can run from alcohol and drug issues to self-destructive behavior to teen depression, and even conflicts with a teen's parents or friends.

"We have seen a rise in students seeking counseling help, both in the form of individual and group counseling at the high schools," said Jennifer Friesen, a counselor at Foothill High School. "I believe this is the result of a combination of factors -- students are more stressed than ever with pressure to succeed, over-scheduling, and the economy."

Sheryl Pacheco, head counselor at Amador Valley High, agreed that the economy is a big stressor on teens right now.

"The current economic situation that our state and country is in is causing a lot of stress on families financially, and in turn is causing additional mental and emotional stress," Pacheco said. "We have been seeing more students needing to receive free lunch services and students who aren't able to afford even the basic school supplies such as paper, binders (and) backpacks."

Friesen said at Foothill, as at Amador Valley, every student has an assigned counselor.

"We also have two part-time counselors that focus more specifically on social/emotional counseling, working with individual students, groups on specific topics, like divorce or stress, and education through classroom presentations," she said. "We take referrals from teachers and parents, and students come in to see us on their own. We have an open door policy, so any student who needs to be seen can see a counselor the same day for any emotional issue."

Hopefully well before things reach a crisis stage that leads to a call to police, students are now being offered counseling options both inside the school and in the community, away from the eyes of other students.

"We've really focused on counseling and the mental health component," Johnson said. "We're becoming more proactive and I think a good sign is people are, at times, seeking help for issues rather than being in denial of them."

Part of the schools being proactive comes from an increase in the counselor-to-student ratio, according to Pacheco.

"Counselors have been able to be more proactive by introducing ourselves, meeting with students, and making connections with them," she said. "When students are dealing with a difficult issue they feel more comfortable seeking out their counselor and sharing with them what is going on and how they are feeling. We are also able to more quickly identify students who need help and support than we have been able to in years past, due to the lower student-to-counselor ratios."

While there's still a stigma about seeking help, the district is addressing that, too. Johnson likens it to any other kind of health issue.

"The message we're sending is if an individual has a physical issue, if they break their arm, they seek help," he said.

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