Defining Preventative Mental Healthcare: A School-Community Partnership | Michelle Hirschy | 5 Min Read

This article is the 2nd in a series of pieces on the very important wellness framework being developed at La Jolla Country Day School (CA). The first article was entitled, Embracing Uncertainty & Preparing Our Students: A Case Study,” by Colleen O’Boyle, Assistant Head of School for Academic Affairs.

In December, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a rare advisory on Protecting Youth Mental Health due to alarming increases in specific mental health challenges amongst children and adolescents. Those of us that have been in the mental health field for some time have seen this surge coming. We have been tracking a steady and concerning increase in childhood mental illness since 2007 and even earlier. What no one could anticipate was COVID-19. The collective trauma we have all experienced has led to irrevocable consequences that are impacting our youth in a multitude of ways. Schools across the country are confronting a wave of student misbehavior since we have returned from the remote learning models of last year. The pandemic has exacerbated multi-year challenges and a lack of mental health resources rapidly and alarmingly. 

Despite the many challenges we face, we have some good news. Research has been consistent in its support for social and emotional learning and SEL’s impact on student outcomes both inside and outside of the classroom. SEL provides schools with a universal intervention that produces a variety of positive outcomes and can and will support the elevated concerns we are facing. The unfortunate juxtaposition is that the term social and emotional learning is more unpopular than ever before (Fordham Institute). This leads us to the question—if we know what can provide support for students, families, and faculty during these trying times, how can we package it so that it will be best received? Terms like “life skills” have emerged as a solution to this public relations issue. Each community has its shared values that should be taken into account when naming its initiatives, but it is clear that when we focus on the specific SEL-related skills, there is broad support. When and how we propose and implement new programming can make all the difference in its success. 

With that in mind, our team at La Jolla Country Day School, in partnership with Rady Children’s Hospital (San Diego), has been working to develop a wellness framework anchored in the school-family-community partnership model. At the time of the partnership’s conception, Rady had recently opened their first ever Behavioral Health Urgent Care. While it was undoubtedly an innovative solution to the challenges faced in San Diego County, we all agreed that it was hard to reconcile the excitement for the project with the reality that it was so desperately needed. How had we gotten to a place where so many youths were struggling with significant mental health concerns that they required emergency medical intervention? We discussed how the goal of medicine in the last few decades has shifted to focus much of its effort on preventing major illnesses. From that conversation, our partnership, mission, and project were born. We had a common question—what does it mean to provide preventative mental health care? 

It is well known that exercise, a healthy diet, and the appropriate screenings can prevent physical illness in many individuals. We understand what preventative medicine is and what it works to accomplish. Why can’t we apply that same logic and messaging to mental health? What metrics, resources, and skills are essential to protect our nation’s youth from the skyrocketing numbers of children and adolescents that are currently experiencing psychological distress? Those are some of the many questions we wish to find clarity for in this partnership. We are hopeful that by making universal resources accessible and showing the benefit of collaborative care for a community, we can have a positive impact on the well-being of our students. While the ultimate goal is to develop a preventative measure that serves our students, we learned early on that we needed to account for the support system that surrounds each child, e.g. parents, guardians, caregivers, teachers, and schools. 

Our wellness team has been building a PreK-12 framework that is anchored in the work of ASCA, the American School Counseling Association. Through the work of ASCA’s mindsets and behaviors for student success, we know what skills and competencies are important to positive student outcomes. We plan to complement this with a wellness menu that speaks to each of those domains and provides a variety of intentionally curated, developmentally appropriate resources to serve each area. We also realize that most SEL resources focus on the student experience, for very good reason. SEL helps to cultivate protective factors that can insulate students from mental health risks (CASEL). Our wellness team also recognizes that teacher and school staff wellness is of equal importance. If we as adults cannot model healthy behaviors, how can we expect students to learn them? It is for that reason that our menu will also include complementary experiences curated for faculty and leadership. To complete this model of wraparound care, we are including an equally valuable and often overlooked section to support parents and caregivers. We believe that when students receive consistent messaging and support, across their daily experiences, they have the best outcomes. We wish for our wellness work and menu to be visible and accessible to all members of the community. 

Shortly, we plan to engage in a peer-review process to ensure that our framework will meet the needs of schools beyond La Jolla Country Day School. In the field of education, we acknowledge that the value and impact of our work will only increase with collaboration. If you would like to join our wellness effort, please email [email protected].


This article was written by Michelle Hirschy, Upper School Counselor, La Jolla Country Day School (CA). As the counselor to Upper School students, her role is to help all students in the areas of academic achievement and personal/social development to ensure today’s students become the productive, well-adjusted adults of tomorrow. Mrs. Hirschy has been a counselor for more than a decade in New York, Colorado, and California. Her passion is working with teenagers through the inevitable ups and downs of adolescence and ensuring that they always have a compassionate ear to which to turn when they need it. She believes everyone needs a place where they can talk with someone who will truly listen and accept them as they are, and she works to provide a safe and warm environment in which this can occur.

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