There was a time when health education in school meant learning about the food pyramid, the dangers of smoking and saying no to drugs. The COVID-19 pandemic, for all its devastating impacts, may have one silver lining…it has reinforced the importance of mental health and has opened the door to more young people learning about and caring for their own mental health.
“Living through a collectively scary experience like this pandemic is taking a toll on our students,” says Jenee Littrell, deputy superintendent in the Student Services Division of the San Mateo County Office of Education. “But the collective stress and emotional toll we are all experiencing has also normalized anxiety—and that gives us an opening to help students.”
A new $25 million, five-year fundraising priority to transform adolescent mental healthcare is now underway to ensure that teens in San Mateo County can get help when they need it. Included in the program will be new and expanded services to ensure that teens have access to critical mental health resources and support, from prevention education to early intervention, inpatient care and outpatient care. It will also provide a layer of consistent practices, support and services for students and their parents facing mental health needs.
This focus on mental health is a philanthropic partnership between Mills-Peninsula Medical Center, the San Mateo County Office of Education and Stanford University School of Medicine’s Division of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, and will reach 95,000 students in San Mateo County public schools.
“The earlier we can support a student or family that is facing a mental health need through all grade levels, in an integrated system, the more positive outcomes we can achieve, while also easing the burden on inpatient and outpatient programs,” Littrell says.
Mental healthcare needs are clearly on the rise. Pediatric mental healthcare insurance claims filed in March and April 2020 for children ages 13-18 were double those filed in the same period in 2019, according to an analysis by FAIR Health, a not-for-profit group. And even before the pandemic, demand for adolescent behavioral healthcare services was increasing nationwide. Yet in the U.S., while one in six children are diagnosed with at least one mental health disorder, only half receive treatment, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
The lead gift for this ambitious initiative was made by longtime Mills-Peninsula Hospital Foundation donors Inger and Norbert Bischofberger. Inger joined forces with local resident Maja Nelson to champion the county-wide partnership to bring holistic change and wraparound support for San Mateo County youth. The two women have collaborated for several years to bring change to mental health services in San Mateo County.
“It’s critical that young children are taught that maintaining good health includes paying attention to our thoughts and emotions, not just keeping our bodies physically active,” Inger says. “We want students and parents to understand that sometimes our thinking might not be working well, but it is an important part of our health. Knowing that help is available and understanding how to access it without judgment is vital to improving lives in our community.”
“I credit Inger and Norbert for believing in this promising approach and for supporting comprehensive, integrated programs that can help prevent teens and young adults from going to the emergency department in the first place, while also supporting improvements in the inpatient and outpatient experience,” adds Maja.
Building a Stronger Network of Support
To develop the new initiatives, Mills-Peninsula CEO Janet Wagner met regularly with Inger and Maja to listen to the needs of community members and evaluate the existing services at MPMC. Wagner then reached out to her contacts—within the San Mateo school district, at Stanford University and in the Sutter Health physician networks—to build a comprehensive partnership to address mental health needs. The resulting plan includes four key elements:
- Partnerships: Build a strong coalition to ensure meaningful wraparound support for adolescents and their families
- Prevention education: Support school leaders and parents in offering a “social emotional learning” or SEL curriculum, to establish a full continuum of care
- Inpatient experience enhancement: Improve the inpatient experience through enhanced staffing and training, improved admission and discharge processes, bridge care in transitioning home, increased parent education and support, expanded programming, increased access to stress reduction materials and renovation of physical environments across all clinical settings
- Leadership training: Engage and partner with Stanford fellows and other professionals to establish standards in patient-centered mental healthcare and training
Expanding Existing Services
Even before the Mills-Peninsula adolescent mental health initiative launched, Littrell’s team had started building a research-based SEL curriculum, to help students learn how to understand and manage emotions. In 2020, San Mateo public schools received funding to build programs to help students recognize mental health stress. Unfortunately, that SEL funding applied to only 11 of San Mateo’s 23 school districts; the new gift will now enable expansion to the remaining 12 districts.
“Our programs give students the language to ask for help, and also provide parents with support in finding help for their families,” Littrell says. “A potential silver lining of the pandemic is it could help us break through some of the stigma of mental health illnesses.”
In addition, several years ago Mills-Peninsula entered into an agreement with Stanford Children’s Health to improve the continuity of care for adolescents in Santa Clara County. That agreement enabled patients seeking care in an outpatient or emergency setting at Stanford to gain access to the adolescent inpatient program at MPMC. Mariya Borodyanskaya, D.O., who has led the Stanford relationship at Mills- Peninsula for nearly two years, is energized by the new philanthropic program for improved support for adolescent mental health.
“I’m excited by this generous gift and the entire program,” says Dr. Borodyanskaya. “It creates an opportunity to develop a state-of-the-art program—with the expertise of an interdisciplinary team that optimizes the care we deliver, and supports adolescents and families in ways that will reduce the chances adolescents will be readmitted to the hospital.”
The Mills-Peninsula initiative will potentially allow for the hiring of a new case manager who will help families navigate community resources and serve as a bridge to outpatient care needs. It will also help to improve the admissions process, enhance the programs and treatment available to teens in the inpatient setting and revamp the discharge process with plans that help families and kids reintegrate into the community. Lastly, the initiative will also potentially expand the integration of the Stanford University School of Medicine’s Child & Adolescent Psychiatry Fellowship, including bringing in additional trainees, such as psychology interns and post-doctoral fellows, and expanding the ability to conduct research on new quality improvement measures.
“Having the partnership and a mental health presence within the schools will help to address the needs of kids more effectively and give them a higher chance of thriving at home,” concludes Dr. Borodyanskaya. ”An infrastructure offering higher quality mental health support in all environments will allow the inpatient team, outpatient team, schools and families to collaboratively reduce the chances an adolescent will experience or re-experience a mental health crisis.”
Philanthropy Is Key to New and Expanded Services
MPMC has faced an increased demand for mental health services during the pandemic. On top of that higher demand, the hospital has faced tremendous financial constraints. Consequently, it was clear from the start to CEO Janet Wagner that a project of this magnitude would require philanthropic support to make it a reality.
“We are so fortunate to have generous donors like Inger and Norbert Bischofberger, who understand that community support is the only way we can deliver such a comprehensive program for adolescents,” Wagner says. “In addition to our community partnerships, gifts to this campaign will help us reimagine and improve the physical spaces of our inpatient facilities and reinvigorate our physicians and staff as they care for our youth.”