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Viewing Mental Health Through the “We Care” Campaign

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March 22nd, 2018

As the mental health of America’s students is weighing heavily on all of our minds, the “We Care” campaign launched in Santa Ana Unified this winter is a bright example of one district’s effort to take a proactive stance on the subject.

“We Care” is SAUSD’s response to AB 2246, the California legislation passed in 2016 requiring all schools serving students in grades 7-12 to develop a suicide prevention policy. Previous efforts encouraged districts to do so, but this legislation represents the strongest push for such programs yet. For many, this will mean simply adopting an official set of procedures to have on record.

But not for Heidi Cisneros, the Executive Director of Pupil Support Services for Santa Ana USD and the district’s “We Care” campaign lead. This bill, she asserted, “finally called for more than just having a policy in place, but really having a system that works for all: students, teachers, school staff, parents, and the community.”

Working with a task force of other stakeholders and mental health professionals—including counselors, school psychologists, and police—her team produced an upbeat video with the title “We Care. Get Help.”

It features testimonials from various SAUSD students and staff as well as expressions of encouragement, all set to a school choir rendition of “1-800-273-8255,” the popular song based on the actual National Suicide Prevention Hotline number.

Cisneros emphasized that the video is not intended to focus on the “sad stories,” but to encourage kids to encourage their friends to reach out if and when they need it. Its primary goal is to promote awareness and conversation about mental health services across the district. And it has done just that. Cisneros reported that “a seventh grader visited her counselor after watching the video online seeking help for a friend” and that “teachers have been asking how to have a more integral role” in getting students the support they need. Reactions from parents have been the most surprising of all for Cisneros; requests for Spanish translations of the video to share with their organizations and networks streamed in soon after its release in January.

However, the “We Care. Get Help” video is only the beginning of a more comprehensive and long-term plan that will soon incorporate staff development highlighting the district’s new simplified prevention protocol, discussion tools for parents, and ultimately a better system for organizing the many assessments and ideations administered by schools’ mental health teams.

To reinforce the video’s positive message, for instance, the district has designated a set of “We Care” Wednesdays, when school staff don specially-designed shirts and will eventually include structured activities for teachers to pair with class screenings of the video. Introduction of the new “Walk and Talk Referral” has been another important early success of the campaign; teachers are now expected to communicate concerns about a student verbally to another professional rather than simply document and file them away in a report. Together, these pieces are beginning to loosen stigmas around mental health across the district and in the surrounding community.  

Mary Giliberti, CEO for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), underscored this recently, asserting that “improving mental health services should be a national priority not because of [school shootings], but because it is what is needed to help students who are struggling to get their lives on track.” While suicide is a known leading cause of death for youth, not many are aware of how it has intensified in the last few decades.

According to the U.S. Public Health Service, the rate of suicide attempts among 11-14 year olds increased by a rate of 200% between 1980 and 1999 alone (U.S. Public Health Service, 1999). Because teachers and school staff interact with students, often on a daily basis, the likelihood for detection of issues and intervention is high. Research has shown that 70-80% of children who receive mental health care services do so through school sites (Burns et al., 1995).  

Proactive and comprehensive programs—like the “We Care” campaign—are critical to tackling the long-term, adverse effects of the early onset of mental health issues, in addition to strengthening all students’ sense of connectedness to their schools, which is associated on its own with better mental and physical health.

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