Expanding Mental Health Counseling Services to At-Risk Children and Adolescents in Sunnyvale, Mountain View and Los Gatos
An unhealthy level of a wide range of serious, risk-taking behaviors – including problem alcohol abuse, illicit drug use, premature sexual activity, and violence – has been documented among the youth in Santa Clara County. In response, the Community Health Awareness Council (CHAC), a nonprofit mental health services agency located in Mountain View, has created programs to help students of all ages maintain or acquire many of the attributes that enable them to avoid high-risk behaviors. CHAC also helps children build life skills that contribute to personal and academic success.
Two years ago, Dr. Benjamin Picard, superintendent of the Sunnyvale School District, where most of the at-risk students come from low and very-low income families, heard about CHAC and asked if it could provide counseling to students in his schools. Through a grant from the El Camino Hospital District in 2010-2011, CHAC was able to deliver its Prevention Plus school-based program to three Sunnyvale schools: Ellis Elementary, Vargas Elementary and Sunnyvale Middle Schools.
The primary goal of Prevention Plus is to help students build the internal and external assets that will protect them from future high-risk behaviors while promoting the positive attitudes, skills and behaviors (e.g., school success, valuing diversity, maintaining good health, and delaying gratification) that will help ensure their personal and academic success. Prevention Plus provides counseling services through supervised interns and uses several strategies including individual, group and family counseling; staff training; parent education classes; consultation with school personnel; peer leadership training; mediation/conflict resolution; case management; drug/alcohol counseling; life skills training; and bullying prevention.
Some of the common issues that CHAC counselors help the students with are stresses around divorce, co-custody, parent illness, family dysfunction that impacts the child's ability to focus in class, acting out behavior in class or the playground, shy or withdrawn children, depression and suicidal ideation, anxiety, cultural challenges, poverty, low grades, gang involvement and bullying.
Two specific programs offered by CHAC to children in the three Sunnyvale schools include "Just for Kids" and "Teen Talk!" Just for Kids, a living skills program, takes place on school sites during lunchtime and teaches elementary school children healthy ways to cope with family and environmental pressures, and age-appropriate substance abuse education. Teen Talk!, a teen drug and alcohol prevention program, is aimed at helping middle school students make better choices regarding their health and safety. Teen Talk! meets once a week for eight weeks on campus during lunchtime and provides a safe place for students to discuss issues that matter to them, such as diet and exercise, smoking, substance use, adolescent sexual behavior and concerns, coping, stress, and depression. Groups are separated by gender and grade level and the program is facilitated by on-campus CHAC counselors.
"CHAC is very pleased to have a partnership with the Sunnyvale School District to service some of their schools that need counselors. CHAC's first year on the three Sunnyvale campuses was very successful. Our interns worked well with the principals and teaching staff and were able for the most part to meet the needs of the referred students. CHAC's services are now well-known among both staff and parents," said Monique Kane, MFT, executive director of CHAC.
As a result of the success of the first year of the CHAC program and the ongoing need, El Camino District Hospital District is providing another grant to CHAC to allow it to expand counseling services to seven additional elementary and middle schools in the Sunnyvale School District in the 2011-2012 school year.
The El Camino Hospital District also provides a grant to CHAC to provide mental health and counseling services and the Teen Talk! program to at-risk children and adolescents in another school district -- the Mountain View-Los Altos High School District.
Through another grant from the El Camino Hospital District, CHAC was able to purchase a recreational vehicle and refurbish it to contain two counseling rooms. The CHAC mobile travels to schools that do not have a space dedicated to providing counseling services to students. After being stationed in Mountain View one year, the CHAC mobile is currently located on the grounds of the Sunnyvale Middle School to meet the need for a warm, confidential therapeutic space for the students there.
"A number of schools have counseling programs, but the CHAC program is unique in that it is evidence based, relevant to what the students want to talk about, and has a dedicated curriculum, which makes it easy to train our staff," explained Ms. Kane. "Through these counseling services, we help kids learn better coping skills and as a result, they do better in school and stay out of trouble. So the program really has a trickle-down effect. When children and families have more mental health resources, they live healthier lives and feel more of a connection to their community. Not only does the student benefit, but the family benefits, the school benefits, and the community benefits."
She added, "We are so grateful for the funds provided by the El Camino Hospital District to be able to provide services at all 10 Sunnyvale elementary and middle schools."