Students demand more mental health services; city and District outline plans

The 2020-21 school year will mark the start of a different approach and enhanced services, officials said.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The youth of Philadelphia are not settling for the bare minimum when it comes to their mental health.

In a rally outside School District headquarters before Thursday’s Board of Education meeting, students organized by Youth United for Change demanded more access to school-based mental health services and they later spoke before the board to press their point.

“We’ve been talking with the District about changing the mental health culture in schools,” said Aniya Timberlake, a YUC leader and student at Bodine High School, in an interview. “We want them to know that our mental health matters, but they brush it off to the side.”

Specifically, she said, “We want transparent resources: If a student is having trouble and they feel like they want to see a therapist, we want them to be able to go to the front office and find places based on where they live.”

The students also want limits on standardized testing and school-based mental health suites, which they said would be useful in alleviating stress that they face in high school.

The protests come at a time that the city of Philadelphia has allocated $100 million for Student Behavioral Health Services that will operate under the new Office of Children and Families. The city is issuing a “request for proposals” for mental health services in schools that will start operating in the 2020-21 school year.

At the meeting, Tamra Williams from Community Behavioral Health made a presentation on how CBH is planning to allocate the $100 million. She said the program would start in the fall and place higher-trained professionals directly into the school system who are “both culturally and linguistically competent” to deal with student needs, using an “evidence-based … systems of care approach that is strength-based and family-centered.”

Training for personnel began in May and will continue through 2023, she said.

“We recognize that without the proper mental health, that our students will struggle, and that’s why we have been working on this for years,” said Superintendent William Hite.

He said the board wants youth input; it is putting together a youth advisory board on mental health and already works closely with YUC.

Williams told the board that the state is revamping its mental health infrastructure and that Intensive Behavioral Health Services (IBHS) will replace what was previously known as Behavioral Health Rehabilitation Services (BHRS) and School Therapeutic Service (STS). Under the new structure, all schools will be able to access school-based mental health services, there will be opportunities for individual and group therapy, and providers will support teachers and “coordinate services across home and community settings.”

Rebecca Baret, a student involved in YUC, told the board that the services she could access in school now to meet her mental health needs are minimal.

“Whenever I go to a counselor’s office, I expect there to be materials that allow students to explore their options on how to cope with certain things,” she said. “But when I went, all I saw were pamphlets defining what mental health is, instead of what to do.”