CA bill addresses mental health workforce shortage, student trauma

FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) — Fresno County health and education leaders look forward to a newly-introduced bill aimed at addressing student mental health.

California schools are set to see some type of normalcy next week, with the mask requirement being dropped. However, some students are still struggling with the toll the past two years have taken on them.

The more we can do to help our kids, the better our future will be because we need healthy, mentally-well people to guide us in the future,” said Julie Barrette.

Barrette, a mental health support provider with Clovis Unified School District, said the pandemic has been rough on students. Many are dealing with depression, anxiety, suicidal feelings, among other mental health challenges.

“Maybe the adults in their lives are stressed and worried also,” she said. “So they’re reacting to that. Sometimes I think they feel like a bear is chasing them in some ways.”

According to Barrett, there’s been an increased need for support from students.

“It’s doubled in the past two years,” she shared. “We’re seeing more and more kids who are kind of getting to that point to where they can’t function well anymore.”

However, she said schools are doing their best, but it’s hard to meet the demand when there’s not enough mental health clinicians.

It’s not just a problem inside schools, but the Central Valley overall.

“We’ve been in the mental health shortage area, and the pandemic has just kind of exacerbated that,” said Ahmad Bahrami, division manager with the Fresno County Department of Behavioral Health.

According to Bahrami, the workforce needs to grow to address the demand.

State lawmakers are now pushing a bill that would provide $25,000 grants to aspiring mental health clinicians who commit to serving two years in a high-need community. If passed, SB 1229 would also aim to fill 10,000 counseling positions.

“I think what we’re looking at, as the Central Valley, is just making sure that that becomes equitable,” Bahrami said. “We are already a shortage area. So we would need that plus more to actually bring us up to speed.”

Both county and school leaders are happy to see lawmakers focusing on children’s mental health but stressed this is just one step in a long journey.

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