Legislators Introduce Bill to Address Student Mental Health Crisis Exacerbated by the COVID-19 Pandemic

Legislation would provide critical guidance so that educators can better identify and address student mental health concerns

SACRAMENTO, CA — Amid growing concern about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on youth mental health, Assemblymember Jesse Gabriel (D-Woodland Hills) today announced the introduction of legislation that would enable educators in California to better identify and address student mental health issues.

Jointly authored with Assemblymember Patrick O’Donnell (D-Long Beach), Chair of the Assembly Education Committee, the measure—known as Assembly Bill (AB) 309—would require the California Department of Education to create a model mental health referral protocol for use by schools across California. These protocols would provide guidance to help educators better identify students with mental health needs and quickly and efficiently connect them with appropriate services.

“Like parents across California, I’m deeply concerned about the impact the pandemic has had on our kids’ mental health and emotional wellbeing,” said Assemblymember Jesse Gabriel. “California already was facing a student mental health crisis, and there are concerning signs that the situation has gotten worse as a result of the social isolation and disruption of the past year. This important legislation will equip our teachers with better tools and resources so that they can help our students navigate these extremely challenging times. This will be especially important as we look to reopen our schools and bring students back into the classroom after months of distance learning.”

Recent data suggests that the COVID-19 pandemic has greatly exacerbated mental health issues among school-aged youth. New data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) show the proportion of emergency room visits related to mental health crises has increased dramatically for young children and adolescents since the start of the pandemic. Another recent CDC report found that 25 percent of respondents between the ages of 18-24 had contemplated suicide in the previous 30 days. And rising suicide rates and an increasing number of mental health emergencies have prompted officials in Las Vegas to consider opening schools more quickly than planned. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, one in five children exhibited signs of a mental health disorder, with California adolescents reporting even higher rates of depressive symptoms than the national average.

“The mental health of California’s children and youth, already at a crisis point, is exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. We are seeing ever-increasing rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide ideation among our young people. AB 309 will provide model protocols that will enable our teachers and other school staff to connect students with the help they need in an appropriate and timely way,” said Assemblymember O’Donnell, Chair of the Assembly Education Committee and joint author of the measure.

“As California moves towards recovery in the coming months and years, ensuring that students have access to needed mental health support will be crucial to ensuring an equitable recovery,” said Debbie Raucher, Education Director for John Burton Advocates for Youth. “AB 309 will provide educators with the tools that they need to make this a reality.”

Teachers are often the first to notice changes in student behavior that can signal mental health issues, yet many educators report a lack of preparedness in addressing these challenges. Research demonstrates that early detection and treatment of mental illness improves students’ attendance, behavior, and academic achievement.

AB 309 is expected to be heard in Assembly committees in the coming months.

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