By Cecilia Chan
GSN Managing Editor

Gilbert High School students will have more access to mental health care in an agreement that could expand to other campuses.

Gilbert Public School Governing Board last week voted 5-0 to provide office and classroom space for a Southwest Behavioral and Health Services mental health counselor to come to the high school once a week.

Students and their families would pay either with private insurance or through the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System — the state’s Medicaid program for people with limited income.

Susan Cadena, K-12 Prevention Coordinator, said Gilbert High’s counseling team approached Southwest “based on the fact they were seeing an uptick in the students that were needing and asking for support; having to deal with mood disorder, depression and anxiety.

“They also wanted to provide additional services because they felt their counseling team was overwhelmed and couldn’t meet the need but yet felt they needed more clinical support,” she added.

Cadena noted that both Mesa and Chandler public school districts also have been getting extra help from the mental-health provider.

Plans are to start off at Gilbert High and may be add one other high school, according to Cadena.

“We didn’t want to open the door and say, ‘hey, come to all the schools without getting a feel of the process and feedback from students and staff before we expand it,” she said.

Under the agreement, which runs Aug. 1 through July 31, 2020, Southwest will help families enroll in AHCCCS if they qualify.

Cadena said they also will create a process to identify which students with parental support are in need of behavioral health services.

“When it comes to the social, emotional health of our students, they are trying to help us knowing our resources are limited,” Superintendent Shane McCord said. “We have as a state 951-to-1 counselor ratio.”

Board member Charles Santa Cruz asked if the service is strictly for the student body.

Cadena said yes, because that is where the need is but can expand the service to others later.

“This is consistent with our strategic plan,” Santa Cruz said. “I like (that) we are going in this direction.”

In approving the agreement, he asked McCord to prepare for the Board’s review something that can give them a better understanding of what kind of services Southwest will be providing to the students.

Echoing their counterparts in Mesa and other area school districts, students from Gilbert Public Schools late last year and early this year told the GPS Governing Board that there is a crying need for more counselors in Gilbert schools.

They cited rising incidents of suicide and suicide attempts are rising at an alarming rate in Arizona and throughout the country.

Since July 2017, 35 teenagers in Gilbert, Mesa, Queen Creek and Chandler have taken their lives; another five in Scottsdale and other neighboring communities lost their lives to suicide in the same time frame.

Appearing before the GPS board, former Highland High School student Trey Sequeira said, “I don’t even know if the total number of suicides at Highland last year was two or three because they were all swept under the rug.”

Then, too, there is the ever-present fear of a school shooting that has been fueled by a rash of such incidents across the country in recent years.

Trey recounted how Highland last school year was put under lockdown because of a bomb threat and that once it was determined there was no bomb, he said, many students were still upset and that “there were no resources for those who were traumatized by the whole thing.”

Some students who appeared before the governing boards spoke from their own experience as they talked of how fractured home life exacerbates the pressures of social media and academics.