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Mental health calls at San Diego schools on the rise

San Diego Police removed 30 students last school year for 72-hour mental health holds, more than double from the 2019/2020 school year.

SAN DIEGO — A mental health crisis in young people is raging across the country, and that includes San Diego.

According to data obtained by CBS 8, San Diego Police are responding to more and more mental health calls at San Diego area schools than in prior years.

The numbers show that police removed 16 students at the local elementary, middle, and high schools in San Diego and were placed on mental health holds in 2019-2020. Despite local schools going remote, SDPD responded to 10 calls the following year. Last year, it nearly doubled from two years prior and 30 students were taken in the midst of a mental health crisis.

The spike in mental health holds at local schools is similar to those seen across the state.

In August, hoping to address the mental health issues caused by the pandemic, Governor Gavin Newsom pledged $4.7 billion in state funds to "reimagine mental health and substance use services." reads a press release.

Also in August, State Superintendent, Tony Thurmond announced that his office had secured $20,000 worth of grants for 10,000 school counselors to help children who are coping with anxiety, depression, or self-esteem issues.

“This is an important moment," reads an August 4 statement from Thurmond. "Our students deserve and need to have more support, and we’re grateful to have resources that we can use to help them. We recognize that it will take time to build out many of these wraparound services so our students can heal, recover, and thrive, and that’s why it’s important to embark on this work immediately.” 

But the benefits from that program as well as others won't likely be seen for some time, leaving local mental health advocates and non-profits having to put in more resources to help youth in need.

Walter Philips is the CEO for San Diego Youth Services, an organization that has provided an array of resources for children and young people in San Diego for more than 50 years.

Philips tells CBS 8 that the numbers barely scratch the surface of the larger issues. Noting while the calls to SDPD have increased, it's important to note all of the other kids who have been struggling with mental health issues, not just those who had to be physically removed from schools.

"At San Diego Youth Services alone, we're just one nonprofit in the community doing work with schools and in the community around children's mental health.  We served almost 11,000 youth and families through our prevention intervention and treatment programs," said Philips.

The data obtained by CBS 8 also shows that the calls are spread evenly amongst age groups, with high schools having reported only one more mental health call than elementary school students, and two more for children in middle schools.


CBS 8 reached out to State Superintendent Thurmond's Office for an update on the grants for new school counselors but did not hear back.

A spokesperson for the California Department of Education, said:

 "The recruitment of mental health care providers to serve in our schools is one of the main priorities of State Superintendent Tony Thurmond and the California Department of Education (CDE). Building off the bill that Thurmond sponsored, SB 1229, the budget includes $184 million for teacher and school counselor residency programs and expands an existing $350 million residency program to school counselors.

Additionally, Thurmond and CDE secured funding in the budget through the Golden State Teacher Grant Program that provides up to $20,000 grants to individuals to serve at a priority school in California for four years, within eight years of completing a preparation program.

"This is a huge step," said the spokesperson. "Student mental health needs are ubiquitous--- with COVID still in our midst, the threat of natural disasters due to climate change, and two years of health, social, economic, and political challenges that have impacted Californians of every race, gender, income level, and zip code—it often hits hardest on those who have been traditionally marginalized and underserved."

Added the spokesperson, "Student mental health will continue to be a priority as we build the systems and structure for the needs of today and for the future. As our work continues, we will partner with the California Student Aid Commission and the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing to help launch an online application and website and assist in outreach."

San Diego Unified said it is working to address the rise of mental health related calls at district schools while acknowledging that the district as well as others across the country are working diligently to do the same.

"While it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact causes of additional people seeking mental health services both around the country and within San Diego Unified, the lack of providers, including psychologists and licensed mental health clinicians and school counselors, has only exacerbated the issue. Like many other school districts, San Diego Unified has seen an increase in calls related to mental health services over recent years."

To show just how bad of a problem it is, a spokesperson for the district provided the number of calls from the same time this year compared to previous years. 

From July 1, 2022, through November 20, there were 55 calls for mental health issues at district schools. That is compared to 46 during the same time last year and only seven in 2020/2021 school year.

"Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, San Diego Unified has made mental health awareness and care a focus of the district," said a district spokesperson. "In addition to other measures, we’ve partnered with several community-based providers to extend access to onsite mental health services for students at all of our campuses, regardless of a family’s income or insurance status. Additionally, the district continues to partner with County Behavioral Health to offer resources, including drug and alcohol treatment programs, individual counseling services, and family support."

WATCH RELATED: California invests $4.7 billion in 'Master Plan for Kids' mental health

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