California showed progress in some areas, such as health insurance, school discipline and absenteeism. (Photo by Alison Yin/EdSource)

California is making progress improving the lives of its 9.2 million children, but still lags behind other states — especially on issues related to young people’s mental health, according to a report released Tuesday.

The 2020 California Children’s Report Card,” published by the Oakland-based advocacy organization Children Now, gives California an overall grade of “C-” for its programs that provide health, education and family services, as well as child welfare and adolescent services for young people from birth to age 26. The report is Children Now’s 31st annual look at state services affecting children.

“This is California — we should be a model for the rest of the country. But when you look at how we’re doing compared to other states, we are very behind,” said Children Now President Ted Lempert. “Some things really have changed for the better, but too many areas haven’t changed at all or have gotten worse.”

Heath insurance is a bright spot. Twenty years ago, 20 percent of California children lacked health insurance, Lempert said. Last year that number had dropped to less than 3 percent, due to recent initiatives such as the Affordable Care Act and the state granting insurance to undocumented children and their families.

School discipline and absenteeism is another high point. The report gave California a “B” for its declining suspension and absenteeism rates, which are due largely to a state ban on willful defiance suspensions in kindergarten through third grade, to be expanded through eighth grade later this year, and the adoption of positive behavior programs in many districts, Lempert said.

But mental health is a major concern, according to the report. California received an “F” grade for its ratio of students to counselors, psychologists, social workers and nurses on school campuses. The report also noted that mental illness is the leading cause of hospitalization among California’s children, and children generally — especially those who identify as LGBT — are reporting high levels of depression and anxiety. Thirteen percent of straight children, and 47 percent of bisexual children, say they’ve had thoughts of suicide, according to the report.

“That fact we have such a high percentage of kids saying they’re experiencing chronic sadness and contemplating suicide … ‘startling’ is too mild a word,” Lempert said.

The rise in young people’s mental health issues is coupled with a shortage of adults on campus who are trained to address students’ emotional needs. California ranks near the bottom nationally for its ratio of students to teachers, administrators, counselors and other staff. Only 57 percent of ninth-graders said they have a trusted relationship with at least one adult on campus. Homeless and foster students had lower rates, according to the report.

This was no surprise to Maureen Schroeder, president of the California Association of School Psychologists and a psychologist in the Elk Grove Unified School District. She and her colleagues have seen a steady rise in students suffering from trauma, anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts over the past few years. Social media, bullying, natural disasters, school shootings, family substance abuse and poverty are the underlying causes in most cases, she said.

“Some students are resilient, and they have supports that can help them cope with adversity. But not all students have that support,” she said. “It’s hard for them to focus academically. If we care about students being able to learn, we have to address their social-emotional needs.”

The National Association of School Psychologists recommends a student-psychologist ratio of 1- to-700. In California it’s 1-to-2,500 in some districts, she said.

Districts are actually hiring more psychologists, she said, but sometimes lack applicants. Only a handful of universities offer graduate programs in school psychology, and can’t graduate enough new psychologists to keep up with the demand. Some universities, such as Sacramento State, are expanding their programs to help alleviate the shortage.

Kirsten Barnes, lead counselor at Hanford West High School in Hanford, in the San Joaquin Valley, said just the everyday reality of adolescence in the modern world is increasingly difficult for young people to navigate. She’s seen a significant jump in students saying they feel suicidal — not just among students with genuine hardships, but also among those with seemingly normal lives.

“Young people think they have to be everything, be involved in 10 million things, just to get to college,” she said. “I’ve seen it all. Students who come in bawling, some come in very stoic. Some students have straight A’s but their anxiety is through the roof. … It’s like they don’t know how to relax and have fun. As a society we seem to accept it. But we can’t accept it.”

The strain on her and her colleagues is hard, she said. More staff and extra training for teachers in recognizing the mental health needs of students would be a huge help, she said, not just for students but for school staff, as well.

The report recommends increased funding for districts to hire more psychologists, counselors, social workers and nurses. But nonprofits and other agencies, such as county health offices, should start providing mental health services on campus to relieve some of the pressure at schools, according to the report.

Story originally published by EdSource.

Carolyn Jones