Palo Alto Weekly

News - November 5, 2010

Referrals of students to free mental health services jump

Suicide prevention, 'asset' promotion also offered to help teens' well-being

by Chris Kenrick

This school year has seen a near doubling over last year of students being referred to free mental health services, according to the Palo Alto Unified School District.

Since school began in August, more than 60 students have been recommended by school counselors for treatment under a program offering a minimum of three free sessions with local mental health providers, according to the district's Coordinator of Student Services Amy Drolette. In 2009-10, 35 students were referred under the program.

Those numbers do not include students referred to the Health Care Alliance for Adolescent Depression (HEARD), a health-care-provider group that formed to offer free services following five public suicides of Gunn High School students in 2009 and 2010. Statistics and trends on the number of students served by the HEARD Alliance were not immediately available.

Referrals to the free services are made for problems such as anxiety and depression, Drolette said. Referred students were fairly evenly distributed throughout the K-12 age groups, she said.

She attributed the increase in referrals to confidence among counselors that ongoing funds will be available for the program and that — at a family's discretion — information would "circle back" so school counselors would know that a student is getting help.

The service is "strictly confidential," she said. "Once we make the referral, the families have the opportunity to contact the agency or provider.

"The hope is that as we support them with the mental health piece, they're healthier individuals and able to be more successful in the day-to-day school setting."

Drolette is in the midst of applying for a $250,000, 18-month grant from the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools to help fund the program. Earlier this year, the district received a $50,000 grant from that agency.

Though it has existed for seven or eight years, the free mental health referral program gained a higher profile last year following the five student deaths.

It is one of several mental-health-related commitments made by the district to Palo Alto Project Safety Net, a community-wide coalition formed in response to the suicides.

Other mental health-related commitments include suicide-prevention training of teachers and staff members at all middle schools and high schools.

The first trainings in a method called QPR, which stands for "question, persuade and refer," took place Oct. 13 at Gunn High School and Terman Middle School.

In a session lasting one to three hours, people are taught "how to recognize the warning signs of a suicide crisis and how to question, persuade and refer someone for help," according to the group's website.

Stanford University psychologist Alejandro Martinez, who has trained hundreds of Stanford students and staff members in the QPR protocol, led the training session at Gunn.

The district's farthest-reaching mental health commitment this year is to a system known as the Developmental Assets, encouraging "positive relationships, opportunities, values and skills that young people need to grow up caring and responsible," according to local promoter, the nonprofit Project Cornerstone of San Jose.

A high percentage of all Palo Alto's high school students, as well as students in grades five and seven, took a baseline "Developmental Assets Survey" in October. Students answered questions about their relationships with their families and schools, and other questions aligned with the 41 identified "assets," such as "positive family communication" and "positive peer influence."

Results of the baseline surveys will be available in February or March, Drolette said.

Parents had to give permission for their students to take the survey, which does not identify results by individual student, Drolette said. Elementary school participation rates exceeded 90 percent; middle schools 85 percent and high schools 75 percent, she said.

Drolette, a former high school history teacher and counselor, joined the Palo Alto school district in August from Mission San Jose High School in Fremont, a high-achieving school ranked 36th in the U.S. News & World Report's 2009 list of America's Best High Schools.

"It's quite an academically driven school but we brought on (the Stanford University-based) Challenge Success program to support our students in terms of the stress factors and ability to learn resilience," Drolette said.

"By nature, when you're talking about high-achieving schools, Gunn and Palo Alto high schools are often part of the discussion, and I was quite familiar with the sites here before I came on board," she said.

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be e-mailed at ckenrick@paweekly.com.

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