When she returned to school last year, Harlandale STEM Early College High School junior Desiree Garcia struggled to interact with other students, her social skills a shadow of what they once were.

“I stopped talking. I became a quiet person in class,” she said. “I haven’t really been happy either. I feel very lonely sometimes.”

Like many students, the months of virtual or hybrid instruction left Desiree feeling isolated, heightening anxiety and depression that did not disappear once schools reopened their doors.

In several local school districts, there’s help for students like Desiree through the San Antonio Mobile Mental Wellness Collaborative. With a new partner in the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute, more help is on the way for schools across the state and the country, said Talli Dolge, the Collaborative’s CEO.

“We really were looking for the last year or so for a backbone organization that would support our efforts, but also be able to help us expand our reach and to help us with bringing the program to different areas of Texas and around the country to enhance and replicate the model,” she said.

Late last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association declared a national state of emergency for children’s mental health. Children have lost parents and family members to COVID-19, and emergency department visits for suspected suicide attempts among adolescents surged 31% in 2020 from 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Dolge said Meadows is the right partner to help expand the Collaborative’s mission. Launched in 2014, the nonprofit works with local, state and regional organizations to help improve mental health care systems, share best practices and develop resources and policy recommendations for legislators.

The Collaborative started serving schools in 2019 after several South San Antonio High School students urged their school board members to provide them with more mental health services. Five organizations comprise the Collaborative: Family Service Association; Rise Recovery; Children’s Bereavement Center of South Texas; Jewish Family Services of San Antonio; and Clarity Child Guidance Center.

Word spread quickly about the Collaborative’s simple approach to mental health services, and in 2020, the Harlandale and Edgewood school districts signed up. Judson and San Antonio ISDs followed.

The services look different for each district, but the Collaborative works so well because it eliminates many of the barriers for accessing mental health services, Dolge said. Most districts have a care center or other facility that can house the Collaborative, so students, families and staff don’t have to travel far to receive treatment. Plus, it’s all free.

“Our kids now have opportunities through the Collaborative that they wouldn’t have had before,” said Melissa True, Edgewood ISD’s senior director of student support services. “They would have had to travel to either North San Antonio or somewhere outside of our neighborhoods to get the services, and that’s just a hardship for our families. Now we bring it into the district right in our admin building.”

The timing to expand the Collaborative could not be better, said Michelle Harper, executive vice president of state policy at the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute. With the omicron variant disrupting the school year yet again, schools don’t have time to wait years to establish a new structure, she said.

“Schools right now, they’re at a crisis point,” Harper said. “What’s really neat about the work that Talli and the Collaborative are doing is that it’s helping schools right now. Everybody knows schools are on fire. They need immediate assistance, and that’s what the Collaborative is doing.”

Almost since its inception, Dolge has been fielding calls from school districts across the state and country on how they can replicate the model. Meadows’ experience working with other school districts in Texas will facilitate the expansion, while also helping to build the Collaborative’s long-term strategy to ensure it’s sustainable, Dolge said.

“A model like this could be the solution to some of the challenges that they’re facing in the school districts,” she said. “I see this as a model that can be brought anywhere if you have the right partnerships and the right communication within the partnerships to make this work.”

In South San ISD, referrals for mental health services increased 157% from fall 2020 to fall 2021, Dolge said. The Collaborative serves more than 23,500 students in South San, Edgewood and Harlandale ISDs, with anxiety, stress and grief being the top reason for referrals.

“We have a need that I had never anticipated,” Dolge said.

Referrals in Harlandale ISD have risen this school year, particularly for anxiety and depression, said Lauren Gutierrez, a licensed clinical social worker at the district’s care center. From August 2020 to June 2021, the district had 260 referrals for mental health services. As of Thursday, the district had 360 referrals for this school year.

“I think that word is spreading, and that shows with the numbers that have grown,” Gutierrez said. “Our students are also recognizing that help is out here, and they’re also spreading the word to their peers and to their siblings and even their parents, as well.”

Oftentimes, a student referral for counseling services will lead to the whole family coming in for services, she said. The referrals span all grade levels.

Catherine Gonzales is a junior at Harlandale S.T.E.M. Early College High School.
Catherine Gonzales is a member of a youth leadership counseling program at her school. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

For Harlandale STEM Early College High School junior Catherine Gonzales, the Collaborative has helped her move past the stigma of talking about mental health, which she didn’t always feel like she could talk about with her family.

“It was not normal to be in counseling or therapy in my house,” she said.

But then she joined a youth leadership counseling program at her school. Led by social workers, the group meets every week during lunch so students can talk about what’s going on in their lives, their stressors and challenges, and they offer each other support and discuss coping skills, said Israel Mota, one of the social workers.

“This is the first group of students, and the long-term goal is to have these students become campus leaders and help advocate for other students and begin leading groups on their own,” he said.

Now, Catherine feels like she has a support system and people she can turn to when she is struggling. She also wants to be a friend to the other students in the group, which has helped her regain the social skills she lost while doing hybrid instruction last school year.

“It’s a really helpful thing to many people because mental health is starting to become normalized,” she said.

After joining the leadership program, Desiree also felt less alone. During the first meeting, the students completed an exercise where one person would stand up and talk about a difficult situation they were going through, and other students who had experienced the same situation would get up and sit in that person’s chair. Desiree said the exercise made her realize that she’s not alone in her struggles.

Both students said they hope the Collaborative expands so more people can benefit from its services. Catherine and Desiree said the group has helped them open up to others more and feel less lonely.

“It helped me a lot. I feel like I’m becoming myself again,” Desiree said. “I’m taking what I’m learning, and I’m putting it in myself.”

Brooke Crum

Brooke Crum is the San Antonio Report's education reporter.