The Palo Alto school district is looking to increase its mental health support and outreach to Asian-American families, with the possibility of a more formal relationship with well-established nonprofit Asian Americans for Community Involvement (AACI) on the horizon.
"What we're hearing and seeing from the community is that the demographics of Palo Alto have changed and the mental health services might not have kept pace," AACI President Michele Lew told the school board Tuesday night.
Students of Asian heritage made up 33.9 percent of the student population in the district in 2013-14, according to Palo Alto High School's Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) report.
Gunn High School's Asian student population has steadily grown over the last several years to 41.6 percent of the student body in 2014, according to the school's WASC report. The report also notes that Korean, Mandarin Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese and "any one of several other Asian languages" are spoken in Gunn students' homes and that the guidance department recently identified the need to sponsor a parent information night in Mandarin "to increase the connection of Asian families to GHS and respond to administrative questions Mandarin Chinese-speaking parents may have."
In approximately 22 percent of Gunn students' homes, the primary language spoken is an Asian language, with the most (15.6 percent) speaking Mandarin, according to the WASC report.
Paly's percentage of Asian students is lower than Gunn's, at 26.7 percent, though "Asian students represent the fastest-growing linguistic and cultural population on our campus," Paly's WASC report reads.
AACI, Santa Clara County's largest nonprofit focused on serving the Asian community, has worked with the school district informally for several years and more so this academic year following several student deaths by suicide, providing pro-bono counseling support at school sites and at various forums, Lew said. AACI is based in San Jose but was founded in Palo Alto in 1973 and has employees who speak more than 40 languages and dialects.
Lew told the board that her organization will be submitting a proposal soon for a "more formal" relationship with the district.
"While mental health and mental illness are topics of interest to the entire community, there are some cultural differences that make us eager to do more work in Palo Alto," she told the Weekly Wednesday.
She said the proposal will include parent education in both English and Mandarin and a more formal counseling relationship.
Lew said that some Asian families may take longer to open up and talk about their issues with a counselor due to their cultural backgrounds. She hopes to discuss with district staff the district's free outside-referral program, in which it allows families to receive at least three free counseling sessions with an outside service provider. Three sessions might not be sufficient for some families, Lew said. She added that she is not sure how many parents are aware of this service.
However, Student Services Coordinator Brenda Carrillo said Tuesday that "there are opportunities to be seen for longer period of time," up to nine sessions, through the program. She later told the Weekly that the three-session referral program was created to provide short-term intervention in crisis, and any extension in care is decided on an individual basis. Students are referred to the program by a school counselor or school psychologist.
"The 3 Session Referral Program was developed to meet a specific need at our sites, which is to provide students with free mental health services during a time of crisis or when the family lacks access to other supports," Carrillo wrote in an email. "It is not meant to be a long term intervention, but rather a bridge between the immediate need for mental health support and a referral to longer term mental health services."
Carrillo also said the district is working to expand its list of outside providers to make sure that they can accommodate the demand and that they can receive families who feel more comfortable speaking in another language.
Palo Alto Unified is also now part of a collaborative, led by Stanford University psychiatrist Steven Adelsheim, working to provide greater outreach to the Asian community. The district has also worked closely with Palo Alto University and The Gronowski Center, a psychology training center in Los Altos, " to explore ways in which to broaden services to our diverse community," Carrillo wrote in an email.
The district this year has helped coordinate Asian-American parent information nights and provide Mandarin translation at other events. Carrillo said Tuesday that the district is looking at organizing events in parents' native languages rather than having them translated from English.
Such events are seen as critical to reducing the stigma about mental illness and opening up conversations about health and well-being with parents, many of whom are immigrants.
At an Asian-American parents event Monday night, a panel of local psychiatrists, psychologists and community members working in mental health many of them themselves born to Asian immigrants -- emphasized that mental illness and suicide are universal but recognized that this particular community does face a different set of issues when it comes to mental health.
"We wanted to particularly offer support to the Asian-American community because ... we do face some special challenges above and beyond what the community as a whole is facing," Rona Hu, a Stanford University professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences, told a full crowd of parents at Paly's Haymarket Theater, many listening to a translator via headphones. "One is that there is more stigma (around mental health) in the Asian-American community than in many other groups of people."
"We can accept when our vision is not perfect that we are not less good of people than people who have perfect vision," Hu continued. "Having glasses, having contact lenses doesn't mean were inferior. And yet when there's a mental health issue, that becomes something that can be a source of shame. We want to do something about that."
Hu encouraged parents to challenge their "hardwired" assumptions about parenting, communication, success and failure.
Jorge Wong, an AACI clinical psychologist, stressed that this might be best accomplished through providing culturally relevant events and education.
"Sources in their primary languages may help them understand better some of the challenges that the school district has or children face," he said.
AACI's pitch for a more formal relationship with the district comes at a time when the schools' primary source for on-site counseling support, Adolescent Counseling Services (ACS), is reportedly overloaded at the two high schools.
"They're completely full within first few months of school starting," Carrillo said.
Gunn student school board representative Rose Weinmann similarly told the board that ACS is in high demand on her campus and asked if there's an opportunity to expand their services.
"We're looking at, very closely, do we have adequate counseling services?" Carrillo responded. "We are looking at expanding, whether it be through ACS or other organizations."