L.A. County High School Wellbeing Centers Continue to Serve Students

The new initiative—a collaboration among Los Angeles County departments of public health and mental health, Planned Parenthood, L.A. Unified School District, and the L.A. County Office of Education—focuses on students' physical and mental health. Many centers are still operating despite schools being closed. 

 

As the educational community around the world battles the academic, physical, and emotional impact of the coronavirus pandemic and extended school closures, Los Angeles County had a new resource to help meet student physical and mental health needs.

Since December, 35 Wellbeing Centers that support the social-emotional and sexual health of students opened on high school campuses throughout the county. Most of the centers were in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the nation’s second-largest public school district.

The initiative—a joint effort the Los Angeles County departments of public health and mental health, Planned Parenthood, LAUSD, and the L.A. County Office of Education—is the first of its kind in the nation, and arrives as the social-emotional and mental health needs of young adults are gaining national recognition. During and after the global pandemic, those needs will almost certainly rise.

When California schools closed in March, at least 11 Wellbeing Centers and one on-site clinic remained operational.

Ellen Sanchez, a consultant program manager with the county’s public health department, says the centers focus on overall well-being. Some students come in for sexual health services, such as access to condoms, pregnancy tests, or sexually transmitted infection (STI) tests and treatments. Others want advice on dealing with depression, anxiety, or stress, or information about substance abuse prevention or what a healthy relationship should look like.

“It’s really about supporting the students in learning how to take care of their own health and allowing them to stay healthy and giving them the skills to do this,” Sanchez says. “We worked really hard to make really sure that everyone who went out to open the centers had a good understanding of…how they can create that safe space that students feel is theirs, [that they] can own.”

The goal is to have 50 centers up and running by fall. Organizers estimate that a total of 75,000 students will have access to services once all are operational.

County health educators with master’s degrees staff each center for two and a half days a week, providing classes and activities to educate students on a range of topics. The curriculum supplements what teens are taught in their regular health classes.

Additionally, Planned Parenthood will run a clinic on-site one day a week. The nonprofit organization has clinics at nine of the centers and plans to offer clinics at the rest of the centers by the end of the year. At sites not yet staffed by Planned Parenthood, registered nurses from the county are available to perform pregnancy tests and STI tests or treatment, Sanchez says. Abortions are not performed at these locations.

Services are considered confidential. In California, anyone 12 or older can, without parental authorization, decide for themselves whether to receive certain health services, including birth control, pregnancy- or STI-related treatments, and, under certain circumstances, drug or alcohol counseling. Health care providers aren’t permitted to notify parents about the services without the minor’s consent.

The purpose of the Wellbeing Centers is to bring services to students so they won’t have to skip class to travel to an off-campus medical facility or figure out a way to get themselves there.

“Our Wellbeing Centers will give students access to the care they need,” LAUSD superintedent Austin Beutner said in an email statement. “Making sure students are healthy will allow them to get the most out of their education.”

According to the latest California Healthy Kids Survey for L.A. County, between 2015 and 2017, five percent of ninth graders and 10 percent of 11th graders reported binge drinking within 30 days of the poll. Similarly, seven percent of ninth graders and 10 percent of 11th graders were identified as heavy drug users.

In that same survey, 29 percent of ninth graders and 31 percent of 11th graders said they had felt chronic sadness or hopelessness in the past year, and about 15 percent of students in those grade levels had seriously contemplated suicide.

Educators and health care providers want students to be safe when it comes to sexual health. According to the California Department of Public Health, patients under age 25 accounted for 53 percent of state chlamydia cases and 31 percent of gonorrhea cases in 2018.

The schools identified for Wellbeing Centers are in high-need areas with high percentages of students receiving free or reduced price meals and high chronic absenteeism rates.

Approximately 15,000 students have received some type of service, ranging from a tour of a center to educational activities to more personal matters, according to Sanchez. When school was open, about 20 to 30 teens visited each center every day during lunch.

The initiative also calls for a peer advocacy program. Ten students at each school will be educated on topics such as sexual and mental health, substance abuse, teen dating violence, and the rights of young people. Peer advocates will use the information to have “effective conversations” with fellow students and lead activities with the support of health educators, Sanchez says.

Most campuses are still interviewing students to become peer advocates, says Sanchez, noting that organizers want the advocates to reflect the overall student body. Advocates will receive a $95 stipend each semester for their work.

The county and Planned Parenthood have collectively committed about $12 million to implement the initiative this year, says Sanchez. She expects the program will cost about $8 million annually.

“We’re really hoping that over time, there are positive changes in school climate and how the school environment supports healthy behavior and healthy decision-making,” she says.

Linh Tat is a freelance reporter based in Southern California. Find her on Twitter @Linh_Tat.

 

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