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As school ramps up again for the 2022-23 school year, student mental health is a top concern in Santa Monica-Malibu Unified Schools but resources are not matching the need.
During last week’s School Board meeting SMMUSD Mental Health Counseling Coordinator Shuli Lotan told the board that the capacity of mental health services in SMMUSD schools has decreased from before the pandemic.

A combination of funding cuts and staff shortages in partner organizations that work with the district dropped the number of students seen for long-term treatment in an individual setting to 389 this year from 453 during the 2019-20 year.

Meanwhile, demand is high – particularly for individual therapy sessions. Lotan said that at the end of the last school year, a larger than normal percentage of students wanted to stay in therapy over the summer or start back up again in the fall.

“We’re starting off this school year already more full than we normally would,” Lotan said. “Typically, at Samohi for example, we might start filling up in October and today is September 1st and I’m counting the number of spots we have left and it’s not that many.”

Lotan also noted the eagerness and desire of many students to return to in-person sessions this year.

“We’re very happy to be back in schools where we can see kids face-to-face and start to climb back up in the numbers of kids we’re able to see,” she said.

She said that more district funding is needed to adequately support students and meet their mental health needs.

“I think the need is for long-term sustainable funding that is part of our yearly budget so that we can create positions that are going to be here for a long time where we can really build capacity and do the work to build out systems in a more intentional, thoughtful, long-term way.”

Board members agreed on the need for more funding for these types of services and expressed a desire to look into possible options.

“I do feel like this is more of a need than ever,” said Board Member Laurie Lieberman. “I think the first thing we need to do is look at what [funding] we are getting and then look at what it is you’re saying we need and look at what’s really doable and how do we start.”
Board Member Richard Tahvildaran-Jesswein suggested potentially forming a task force to focus on mental health-related issues.

“We need something that signifies to our entire community, that we control in our community, to say: this is something that’s significant to us in this moment coming out of the global pandemic, we want to know where the kids are at right in this moment, we want to be able to collect this data,” Tahvildaran-Jesswein said.

Lieberman said she doesn’t think a new task force is necessary to accomplish that goal and advocated for utilizing existing groups and resources to gather more data about student needs and make a plan to take action.

The item was on the agenda as a discussion item so no vote was taken on a specific action, but Board President Maria Leon Vasquez committed to meet with Lotan, along with Lieberman and Tahvildaran-Jesswein, in the next week to further discuss the issue.

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