Content in partnership with CA Youth Media Network

Schools Should Prioritize Student Well-being

Despite a bill being signed into law for the expansion of mental health instruction in California public schools on or before January 1, 2024, nothing has changed.

Schools Should Prioritize Student Well-being (Halfpoint via Getty Images)

According to Protecting Youth Mental Health: The U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory, “From 2009 to 2019, the proportion of high school students reporting persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness increased by 40%; the share seriously considering attempting suicide increased by 36%; and the share creating a suicide plan increased by 44%.”

These reports show how youth mental health is in dire need of support. Many of these feelings stem from stress, expectations placed on youth and a lack of adequate resources and help. If youth aren’t given proper support, they’re forced to look for relief in dangerous ways. Providing mental health days or passes for youth will improve their mental health and well-being.

With the percentage of student's mental health issues increasing, schools should help their students and make their academic life easier. Senate Bills 14 and 224, both authored by State Senator Anthony J. Portantino, will help with that.

SB 14 ensures student absences for mental health concerns will be treated the same as absences for physical health concerns. It also recommends best practices and training to school staff and students surrounding mental health concerns and appropriately responding to them.

Local educational agencies and charter schools are required by SB 224 to include mental health content in the health education courses they offer. It also requires the California Department of Education to develop a plan to expand mental health instruction in California public schools on or before January 1, 2024.

These bills were signed into law in October 2021, yet there’s no visible change in 2023.

It doesn’t help when funding does arrive, other things take priority, and schools fail to prioritize mental health services, according to Maya Hernandez, a coordinator for before and after-school programs at Hayward Unified School District.

“I've been in education for a long time, almost 20 years,” said Hernandez. “I've seen that we were going to put money out, bring in so many things, so many services, and then as soon as funding comes, a new priority comes up, that funding goes to the other priority…We're not doing the best job we could be doing.”

“Students with mental health issues, illnesses, disorders, and disabilities can struggle with school. They’ve received support when it comes to testing and accommodations for their disabilities such as wheelchair accessibility," Hernandez said. "Those who have ADHD, anxiety, dyslexia, and more can get their testing time extended. But there’s still work that can be done.”

The challenging environment schools have created has caused youth to compare themselves and base their worth on their academic results. From personal experience, I don’t think schools listen to their students' needs, but instead, prioritize upholding their academic standards. 

For example, during my senior year in 2021, I was overwhelmed with school. I normally had good grades, but when they turned bad, I felt like I was failing everyone. I ended up having migraines almost every day for a month due to all the stress. That didn’t help with my mental health at all.

When I reached out for help, my school made me feel worse. After I told my counselor I wasn’t going to college and explained my reasons, they still kept pushing me to apply. In a meeting with the vice principal at my school, she told me all about her struggle and life story about pursuing higher education and said that I was closing a door of opportunities, opportunities I have that many wish they could have. She was guilt-tripping me.

Teenage sad woman sitting on a city street. (Martin Novak via Getty Images)

My counselor asked if I was still applying after I met with the vice principal. At that point, I was feeling hopeless that they would help me.

I had to get help outside of school. I’m sure I’m not the only one who had to go through that.

Michelle Gonzalez, a sophomore at Fresno City College, has also felt the pressure to uphold academic standards.

“I feel like in high school or just K through 12 schools, they prepare you to get good scores on a test or get good grades and not actually learn the material that you need to know,” said Gonzalez. “I was a person who would base my worth off of the scores I would get, and that's terrible because it creates anxiety.”

Student well-being should be the number one priority. By providing enough funding for schools, they can make sure students know about the resources and help available to them, like absences for mental health concerns.

Teachers and staff can help as well. Students can be extremely embarrassed and scared for things they were forced to do and had to put up with. Being excused from activities that could trigger them would be beneficial. Teachers can provide mental health day passes, so students can take a break and reset when they aren’t able to participate in class for the day.

Having mental health days and passes is very important and needed, especially when the time for proper self-care and rest can be hard to accomplish with a busy school agenda. I know how badly I needed these things during my senior year at a time when I couldn’t even count on my counselor and school staff to help me. With these things in place, I could have taken care of myself and received the proper support I needed.

Students are human beings who need adequate care to be their best selves.

This story was produced by The kNOw and is part of a collaborative project “You’re Not Alone” that includes content from young journalists from Boyle Heights Beat, Coachella Unincorporated, The kNOw, Richmond Pulse, Voices of Monterey Bay, We’Ced and YR Media.

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