Student management

California invests billions in student mental health: How one school is using the money

However, when Covarrubias tried to refer students to other community organizations they partner with, she said each of them had a waiting list.

“They’ll say, ‘Okay, thanks for the recommendation, we’ll get back to you.’ And sometimes it takes months before they are matched with someone who can support them and be their therapist,” Covarrubias said.

And these are the acute cases.

Bridges’ therapist, Inga, says what makes matters worse is the lack of health care coverage for preventative care. Currently, Medi-Cal managed care plans and commercial providers such as Kaiser do not reimburse county behavioral health services for children without a clinical diagnosis.

That could change with legislation, namely AB 552, which is now expected to reach the governor’s office. This would encourage private health plans to work with counties to reimburse community providers such as Seneca, Lincoln, and East Bay Agency for Children in Alameda County, for example, to provide treatment for students with more moderate needs.

“If we were to set up children with therapeutic support as a preventative, you know, we wouldn’t have fifth graders who are having suicidal thoughts,” said Inga, who works for Seneca.

An investment in mental health

California has begun an unprecedented investment to meet the mental health needs of K-12 students.

There is $4.4 billion for a youth and adolescent mental health initiative to reduce structural barriers preventing children from seeking care inside schools; an additional $4.1 billion for community schools, including funds for mental health needs; as well as billions more in federal and state pandemic relief dollars, a portion of which is also aimed at helping students recover from depression and anxiety caused during the pandemic and subsequent school closures. .

In the third round of federal pandemic funding to schools, Oakland Unified secured more than $100 million. According to records filed with the state in May of this year, the district only spent about $650,000 of that money. And of that amount, district reports went nearly half to mental health.

But by the time COVID relief money was flowing to Bridges Elementary, the school was left with just $20,000 as a mental health priority. The money wasn’t even enough for a single full-time therapist with benefits that cost around $160,000.

The district says it hasn’t spent all the resources yet and is spacing out investments. He says school sites last year requested the investments they wanted based on their site’s needs, and they had flexibility in how they spent the dollars.

Comelo and the staff decided to use their $20,000 to hire a part-time clinical therapist for two hours a week. Inga and the part-time clinician decided to start a six-week group therapy session with 8-9 students, almost all of whom were native speakers of Mam.

“At first everyone was really quiet and shy,” Inga said. Inga had previously worked with young people in detention camps along the border, and she could also identify as an immigrant herself. “My parents brought me here when I was 15, and not having that support…my experiences brought me here to this group.”

Among the students who joined the first newly formed preventive therapy group was 10-year-old Heymer Domingo Godinez.

Sisters Heymer Johana and Katy Noeli Domingo Godinez cook eggs at their home in Oakland after school on August 30, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“When I first came to Bridges academy, I was scared. I was crying, because I was scared of the students,” Heymer said in Spanish.

Heymer had arrived from Guatemala with her father in first grade, screaming, kicking and crying when she was dropped off at school. She was afraid to come to school because in Guatemala she was too young to go.

Heymer and her teachers describe having to hold Heymer to calm her down and keep her in class. In fourth grade, Heymer says she only had one friend. Inga says children like Heymer were confused about their place in school.

“They didn’t really feel like they could trust other people,” Inga said. “Like once they came here, there was no space to really talk about themselves and their culture.” On top of that, the pandemic has hit families like Heymer’s living in East Oakland especially hard; her parents lost their jobs and nearly lost their accommodation, before the school stepped in to help them.

When Heymer and the other students gathered for the small group therapy session, Inga asked each of them to bring something that represented them. Inga said it was Heymer who asked if she could wear her woven huipil and corte, the traditional Mayan clothing she wore at home.

Two young girls wearing decorative red shirts and long black skirts face the kitchen counter.
Sisters Heymer Johana and Katy Noeli Domingo Godinez prepare food at their home in Oakland after school on August 30, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Heymer was nervous and a little afraid to be under the microscope. “Because some people look at us and some people think, ‘why does a girl wear it? short like that?'”

Inga told her students that they could expect attention from their peers, but should see it as an opportunity rather than something they would rather avoid.

“Look, some other kids might look at you weirdly, but that’s because they haven’t been exposed to other cultures,” Inga advised. “And if they ask you or say something mean, it’s like, you know, ‘Just let me tell you about my culture, let me tell you what it means.’ ”

As the group therapy sessions unfolded, other efforts by the school’s teachers also unfolded, aimed at creating a greater sense of belonging for Mam’s students.

“I know at parent-teacher conferences I have, and I’m pretty sure other teachers have as well, explicitly told students in front of their families, ‘Please keep practicing your Mom. We don’t want you to lose that language,” said fourth grade teacher Vivian Yen.

Yen said some teachers have started taking MAM language classes, while others are critically rethinking their curricula.

“I know my grade level team, as well as fifth and third graders did it. We were watching our ELA [English Language Arts] program because all the texts are very white-centric,” Yen said.

“I think the murder of George Floyd kind of pushed us to adjust our curriculum and make it a little bit more social justice-focused and more ethnic-studies-focused. It’s so that students also have time to think about their own identity, to think about how they fit in and can counter these racist narratives that are given to us all the time,’ Yen said.

Two young girls wearing decorative red shirts and long black skirts sit on the grass outside a building.
Sisters Heymer Johana (left) and Katy Noeli Domingo Godinez sit on the grass outside their new school, Elmhurst Middle School, in Oakland on August 30, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The joy felt by Heymer and the other students in wearing their cortes has spread –– more and more mam-speaking students have started wearing their traditional cortes on Fridays.

“Even the boys!” Inga said. “It was just beautiful.”

When the fifth-grade graduation arrived, it was Heymer who welcomed the parents to the event at Mam and led the show. And for the first time, all the students who presented recited poems in English, Spanish and Mam. Everyone used the three languages.

Teachers see this as a culmination and defining moment of the culture change efforts they have worked so hard for.

“Honestly, I think it’s just the accumulation of a bunch of little things that led to this movement,” Yen said.

This year, Heymer started sixth grade at a brand new college, Elmhurst United in East Oakland. As she walks the eight blocks to school, she enjoys singing songs from her church, La Iglesia de Dios Evangelio Sana Doctrina in Oakland. She says it makes her happy and calms her down.

Heymer scouted the school before classes started, scanning photos of staff on the bulletin board outside the school office, looking for faces and names of teachers who she said could speak Spanish.

She says that although she worries about going to a new school, she is now more confident about who she is and what she can do.

I want to learn. I don’t care what people say about me. I only care about my mind and making my dreams come true,” she said.

Heymer says that if she has to, she will call on her old teachers at Bridges Academy for help.

If you would like to help a young person who you believe is suffering from depression or anxiety, we have some resources for you below, thanks to several community organizations that work with the mental health needs of children.

Therapist Yesebel Inga sent this resourceful link from Seneca:

If you are in Alameda County, here is their website for Mental Health Services Support

If you are a family experiencing a mental health crisis or a stressful time:

Family paths


Parenting Stress Helpline


Family Paths

Here is the National 24/7 Suicide Prevention Lifeline and TEXT Line

1888-628-9454 Spanish

1800-273-8255 English

Text: HOUSE at 741741

There is a new national 988 number:

Here’s the state’s website with resources:

And here’s a way to find your county’s behavioral health contact number:

Of course, the best place to start is to talk to your primary care doctor and ask for a referral for help.