Youth mental health challenges were already on the rise before the pandemic. However, isolation resulting from school closures, social unrest and the loss of loved ones have pushed depression, anxiety, substance abuse and suicide to all-time highs.
According to a 2021 survey by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), nearly one in three California high school students reported feeling sad or hopeless almost every day for two or more weeks in a row. Almost one in five said they have seriously considered attempting suicide. Most disturbingly, the CDC reported a 31 percent increase in emergency room visits during the pandemic.
In California, mental illness is the number one reason children are hospitalized, and half of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by the age of 14. Blue Shield of California’s BlueSky initiative is going beyond the traditional definition of health care to address this crisis. BlueSky meets youth where they are, incorporates their voices and strives to bridge the gap between stigma and empowerment. It increases access, awareness and advocacy for culturally responsive and diverse mental health supports for youth and the adults who support them.
BlueSky collaborates with the California Department of Education and leading nonprofit organizations to provide clinicians in middle and high schools, train educators to spot the signs of mental health issues and empower students with in-person and online mental health resources.
When BlueSky launched in the fall of 2019, the goal was to build a multi-year initiative that would directly impact California youth with a range of mental health needs. Not long after the launch, the BlueSky team and its partners faced the challenge of delivering services to young people amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
This initiative is especially unique due to its measurement and evaluation cycle performed by the University of California San Francisco, creating a continuous learning loop so we can adjust the program to create more impact for youth and families. Below are examples of BlueSky’s work in access, awareness and advocacy:
Direct Services & Supports
In middle and high schools, partner Wellness Together’s clinicians work closely with educators and administrators to provide mental health interventions for youth in individual and group settings. When schools first transitioned to online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, Wellness Together’s specialists pivoted to providing virtual services, quickly filling gaps to meet student needs and adapting services to a virtual environment within two days of initial closures.
Schools were overwhelmed with transitioning to distance learning and trying to ensure that students’ basic academic and social-emotional needs were met. This resulted in fewer referrals for counseling and fewer counseling sessions than anticipated during the 2020-2021 school year. However, Wellness Together continued deepening relationships with schools and was frequently the only school-based provider that could provide crisis counseling sessions. They also offered more social-emotional learning opportunities in classrooms, collaborative consultation with families and school staff, intervention documentation and referrals to community-based organizations.
Education & Training
BlueSky works alongside the California Department of Education (CDE) to offer Youth Mental Health First Aid training sessions to schools across California, giving educators and engaged adults the necessary skills to reach out and provide support. Educators learn to recognize warning signs, offer help and connect youth to professional care.
BlueSky supports Mental Health California’s Brother Be Well program in Sacramento, which addresses mental health and wellness through an innovative platform blending technology, education, awareness, and healing pathways. Its overarching goals are reducing disparities, removing stigma, healing trauma and ending prolonged suffering. The initiative also includes education for parents and caregivers.
Recognizing that resources, including online reading materials, can help, BlueSky also partnered with DoSomething to create a first-of-its-kind mental health coping tips guide for youth — by youth.
BlueSky aims to provide culturally affirming mental health services and equitable access and ensure continuity of services for communities of color. During the 2021-2022 school year, 54% of the youth served in the BlueSky schools-based therapy program identified as Hispanic/Latinx and 15% identified as Black. Promise Health Plan won the Health Equity Award from the California Department of Health Care Services in 2021 for the BlueSky initiative.
BlueSky has seen tremendous success in enhancing access, awareness and advocacy of youth mental health through in-school and virtual counseling and training. The BlueSky team continues to provide ways to reach students where they are, in schools or communities, with resources to help.
With BlueSky’s support, CDE’s Youth Mental Health First Aid has trained 3,800 educators and caring adults to support the mental well-being of youth who may be experiencing emotional distress, the onset of a mental illness, addiction challenges or who may be in crisis.
NAMI On Campus High School Clubs (NCHS) raise mental health awareness, educate the campus community and reduce stigma in schools. Since 2019, BlueSky’s support has helped increase club membership to 2,000 active youth participants, with 112 active clubs in 19 counties in California.
In partnership with Wellness Together, BlueSky supports counseling in 21 middle and high schools in Alameda and San Diego Counties and, since 2019, has provided 13,521 individual, group, family and crisis intervention counseling sessions. Wellness Together’s evaluation showed:
Recent Parent Survey respondents reported at least one positive change in their child after participating in the Wellness Together program. One parent, for example, stated, “Our daughter is in a much better place because of this program and has tools and strategies she can use when needed. “
All Student Survey respondents reported that they would refer a struggling friend to the Wellness Together program and that participation impacted them positively. Additionally, students appreciated having support “during a panic attack or anxiety” and having “…support that [they] otherwise wouldn’t have.”