Barbara Pastores didn’t know what to do.
For months, she had seen her 16-year-old son start sharing less about his life. In March, the teen, then a sophomore, was diagnosed with anxiety and depression by his therapist. Pastores turned to his Seattle public school, a family doctor and a therapist for help, but still, she felt lost.
“It became clear in January that he was struggling to keep up and (was) getting overwhelmed by the fact that he was behind,” Pastores said.
As the year progressed, he lost interest in his classes, sometimes missing them entirely.
She talked to a mental health counselor at his school, but left the meeting feeling like there weren’t many resources available, Pastores said. Seattle Public Schools did not provide an immediate comment regarding Pastores’ concerns.
Therapy also wasn’t helping, and after spring break, he stopped attending school altogether.
In April, Education Lab asked readers to send us their questions about nontraditional students — a catchall for students who don’t speak English at home, recent immigrants and refugees, homeless students, gifted learners, students with disabilities, students who have interacted with the justice system and more.
Pastores, who felt like she had run out of options, responded to the prompt by asking about what sorts of protections and rights Seattle students struggling with mental health have.
The short answer: Not many, at least right now.
The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) ensures that students whose disabilities affect their learning access special education services. IDEA lists 13 categories of disability, and while depression and anxiety can fall under emotional disturbances, the process to qualify for services is lengthy and not every kid with a mental illness is eligible.
The state doesn’t currently require schools to provide mental health support. Although most Washington schools offer some basic mental health program, there aren’t any legal repercussions if they don’t.
The state does require schools to adopt a plan for recognizing, screening and responding to emotional or behavioral distress in students — but nothing that holds them accountable for executing it.
A new law could change that.
Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake, is among several senators who co-sponsored legislation that requires schools to actually execute their support plans for students facing emotional or behavioral distress.
“We don’t have enough mental health counselors,” Warnick said. “We’re trying to do as much as we can, but (legislators) have to come up with a funding model by December 1.”
In Seattle, public school officials do their best to sit down with families and students with mental health needs to create specialized plans, said Erin Romanuk, the Seattle Public Schools student support services supervisor.
Some students need daily check-ins with counselors. Some take breaks from class and recharge in quiet spots where they feel safe. Many who experience social anxieties want to connect with smaller clubs or peer groups during lunchtime.
The district also works with school-based health centers, including Kaiser Permanente, Neighborcare Health and Swedish Medical Center, on 28 Seattle campuses to provide therapy, treatment goals, medication reviews and a higher level of care. The participating middle and high schools each have one full-time mental health professional and the elementary schools share part-time counselors.
In the 2018-2019 school year, SPS also employed 139 certificated school counselors, though they didn’t necessarily have specific mental health training.
Other Washington school districts have developed their own systems.
In Tacoma, the public school district brings in therapists from Comprehensive Life Resources, a local mental health agency. Battle Ground Public Schools uses a federal grant to run Project AWARE, which increases services and awareness. Spokane Public Schools became a licensed mental health center and employs 45 family mental health therapists in its schools.
The need for accessible mental health services grows every year, said Camille Goldy, who supervises OSPI’s behavioral health and suicide prevention program.
In Washington, the number of students who said they felt depressed has risen steadily since 2008, according to the state’s 2018 Healthy Youth Survey.
Last year, 32% of eighth graders and 41% of 12th graders reported feeling so sad or hopeless that they stopped doing their usual activities for at least two weeks, and about 10% of high school students attempted suicide, the survey said.
While Pastores’ son is still working on regularly engaging with his family, he’s planning to enroll in Running Start, a program that allows high school juniors and seniors to take college courses at Washington’s community and technical colleges.
“He really has been wanting to do that before all this went down,” Pastores said. “I’m crossing my fingers that Running Start is going to work they way we hope for him.”