Stanford works with local school districts to support mental health and wellbeing

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COVID-19 has complicated the deployment of a new collaboration between Stanford University and local school districts to support the mental health and well-being of students and their families — but the pandemic has also helped show why such a project is crucial.

Stanford University works with local school districts to support mental health and wellness. (Image credit: Farrin Abbott)

the Stanford Redwood City Sequoia School Mental Health Collaborative was established in October 2020 to help Redwood City School District (RCSD) and Sequoia Union High School District (SUHSD) build capacity to understand and address the critical mental health needs of thousands of students across the region and their families.

As part of the collaboration, Stanford Graduate School of Education John W. Gardner Center for Young People and Their Communities and the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford Medicine Center for Youth Mental Health and Wellbeing share expertise on how to strengthen a multi-level support system, including how districts can use data to inform and improve student and staff wellbeing. In addition to experienced faculty and staff, the project team includes three graduate research assistants and two fellows in child and adolescent psychiatry.

As Stanford’s presence in Redwood City grew, it sought deeper engagement with the local community, particularly building on existing collaborations between Redwood City schools and the Graduate School. of Education. Support for the collaboration was sparked by Stanford’s new facilities which brought more members of the university community to the city, including the Stanford Redwood City Campusthe Stanford Medicine buildings and more recently the addition of The Cardinal Apartments.

Isabelle Stid, a senior at Menlo-Atherton High School, has seen classmates affected by issues including anxiety, eating disorders, addiction and the pressure of being the first in their family to go to college or get into top universities.

During the pandemic, students have also faced trauma and grief from those who have lost their lives to COVID, isolation, heightened anxieties, added responsibilities, and more.

“You can’t really focus on learning if your basic emotional needs aren’t being met, and you can’t pay attention in math class if you’re trying not to cry,” Stid said. “Students are better able to absorb information and be present in the classroom and in their own lives when they have mental health support.”

The collaboration also hopes to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health. Stid advocates for the mental health needs of his fellow students as a student member of the Sequoia Union School District Board of Trustees.

“Awareness can help remind students that they are not alone and what they are going through is not shameful,” she said. “It’s really important because it creates a culture where we accept that not everyone feels 100% all the time and it’s okay if you need help.”

Increasingly complex needs

The collaboration grew out of a year of listening conducted before the pandemic as Stanford uncovered the districts’ greatest needs at the time. A particular challenge for schools has been cultivating strong wellbeing and daily education in the classroom, while responding effectively to students in crisis.

“It was really driven by their articulation of what the most complex need was,” said Kristin Geiser, Gardner Center deputy director and senior research associate. “How can we help them develop responses that are not reactive, but rather build a support system, so that it is both effective and efficient, and that students who need support do not pass between the cracks? »

The Gardner Center has worked with the Redwood City community for more than two decadesproviding a foundation of trust on which the collaboration built by focusing on immediate support to the needs expressed by the districts and translating them into strategic priorities for the academic year.

The impact of the pandemic has complicated the work of the collaborative, but has also highlighted demand, as more students have presented with more complex and intense mental health needs in the school setting.

As in-person connections have been lost during the pandemic, “people struggling with mental health issues have become more prone to isolation and worsening of their symptoms,” said Dr Shashank Joshi, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences.

Some students turned to accessing school-based mental health support via telehealth, but it was not practical for others, he said. Some struggle to find a private space for a therapy session while others don’t want to be on video, making it harder for therapists to bond or read body language.

Additionally, the mental health needs of school staff increased as they faced their own challenges, such as fears of exposure to COVID when back on campus, community pressures to return to in-person learning and the additional responsibilities in caring for students.

A “true partnership,” the collaboration gives Stanford insight into the challenges school districts face during this unprecedented time, creating the conditions for actionable research, Geiser said.

“To navigate well this time around, we will be well served by reaching out to each other, learning from each other and with each other as we go,” Geiser said. “This project looks like an example of doing just that.”

Capacity Building

By providing clinical expertise and technical assistance to complement districts’ own efforts to support students, the collaboration enhances districts’ ability to respond to routine and more complex mental health needs and crises.

“Without Stanford’s support, it would have been difficult for us to do this because we are not mental health professionals,” said Redwood City School District Superintendent John Baker. “What is happening today is phenomenal.”

Many people struggle to access off-campus help, especially for younger age groups, Geiser said. Placing mental health counseling on campus increases the likelihood that people who need support will get it sooner, which can lead to better outcomes.

Each school site has counselors, and Stanford provided one school site with an additional clinician. Stanford also helps with community communication about why counselors are on campus and the services they provide.

Districts have embarked on social and emotional learning curriculum initiatives, which students are already benefiting from. Stanford serves as a thought partner supporting district efforts to expand and strengthen their social and emotional school initiatives.

Clinicians share coping skills to help students deal with issues such as anxiety, Baker said. For example, when elementary school students are experiencing difficult emotions, they are now given a box containing items such as toys and crayons that allow them to process and manage their emotions before returning to class.

Shana Karashima, tiered support system coordinator for Sequoia Union High School District, said the collaboration has also helped her district learn to use data to determine how mental health services are accessed, their effectiveness, the how often students need extra support, and more.

“Ultimately, the goal is to have easier access to mental health care, robust offerings at an earlier level, and access for all students so students don’t have to be referred somewhere. “, said Karashima. “This partnership will help us get a very clear picture of our needs.”

Among other efforts, the collaboration provided information and clinical support to SUHSD teachers and staff on how to safely reopen schools, launched a mental health-focused youth advisory group, and conducted an initial assessment. requirements for RCSD’s ability to support mental health. Team members are in weekly contact with district employees, often adjusting their workflow to meet changing needs.

Go forward

Joshi, of Stanford’s Center for Youth Mental Health and Wellbeing, said district leadership has been very forthcoming and open to suggestions, “allowing us to do a very good job, and continuing and supporting the work for years to come”.

Districts have also set up different listening platforms for all parents, students, teachers and staff to understand major mental health issues in the school, Joshi said.

“We think we know what some of the issues are, but we’re still in learning and investigating mode with the community,” he said. “In doing so, we can continue to work together to foster conditions that ensure students are healthy enough to learn and teachers are healthy enough to teach.”

If you need help …

If you are a student, family or staff member of the redwood town or Union Sequoia school districts, contact your district administration office to learn more about available resources. Additionally, RCSD’s Director of Community Schools and Partnerships, Michelle Griffith, can be reached at, and SUHSD’s Multi-Level Support Systems Coordinator, Shana Karashima, can be reached at skarashima@seq .org.

If you or someone you know is going through a mental health crisis, text HOME to 741741 to access the Crisis text line; call (650) 579-0350 for StarVista – Crisis Line; or contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1 (800) 273-8255, with help available in English and Spanish. Dial 1 (800) 799-7233 for National Domestic Violence Helpline.

For more information about the collaboration, contact Kristin Geiser at

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