The pandemic has impacted students across the economic divide. Their shared experience of going to school, seeing friends, attending class, and participating in school activities vanished overnight. And was replaced by all social interaction taking place in front of a computer. COVID-19 not only changed their entire social and academic structure, but for some, also caused significant grief as a family or loved ones passed away from the disease. These students have now returned to the classroom and are dealing with the aftermath of their entire lives shifting. 

Some children have returned with fear in their eyes. Others hope that the pandemic will not result in a return to home-based learning in front of a computer screen. Whatever their concern, children are often finding it difficult to put their emotions into words. This is a critical point of time for an intervention – as the pandemic has already resulted in deterioration in their mental health. 

During the pandemic, teenage suicide rates rose, and hospital emergency departments saw students showing up because of a mental health crisis. In addition, rates of depression, anxiety, and in some cases, suicide or attempted suicide rose across the nation. Yet, there were few, if any, resources on which to rely for parents in rural communities. 

As a result of this unprecedented mental health crisis, we have a unique opportunity and responsibility to take immediate action and make a difference. Legacy Health Endowment has partnered with Health Net, one of the state’s longest-serving and most experienced Medi-Cal partners, to award the Denair Unified School District a grant to launch a unique pilot project geared towards offering support 6-12-grade students affected by mental health issues. 

Led by Dr. Neha Chaudhary, MD, a double board-certified child psychiatrist, all 6-12 grade students will attend a mandatory two-and-a-half-hour seminar to increase their knowledge about mental health, increase their ability to identify signs and symptoms of mental health stress and provide a greater understanding of how to improve their mental health. 

“What better a place to reach kids face-to-face than the one place they’re required to spend more of their waking hours?” asks Dr. Chaudhary. “We’re doing two big things with this program. First, we expose middle and high school kids to mental health education and coping skills in daily classroom settings. Second, we are inviting and including the voices of the very people we want to help,” said Dr. Chaudhary. “By having a safe and creative space to share their perspectives and ideas on how to cope, the teens will embrace this approach, and the outcomes and ideas will help them in real-life.” 

In rural California, there are not enough child psychiatrists or therapists trained to help children. That makes this opportunity, and partnership, even more critical. Teaching students about their 

mental health is an essential first step. Children need to know it’s OK not to feel OK — and that there is a way to start feeling better. That’s the goal and aspiration of this new, creative partnership. 

— Jeffrey Lewis is the president and CEO of Legacy Health Endowment. Dr. Pooja Mitta, DO, is the HealthNet medical director.