Marie-Elena Schembri Writer, Photographer & Visual Artist Marie-Elena Schembri Writer, Photographer & Visual Artist

Youth Wellness Series-Mental Health Crisis

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MENTAL HEALTH CRISIS: Calaveras students experience depression, suicidal thoughts, high rates of abuse

Marie-Elena Schembri, Calaveras Enterprise, April 21, 2022

Is there a mental health crisis among youth in Calaveras County? A steadily increasing rate of teen depression and suicidal ideation, coupled with a lack of services paints a dire picture for Calaveras adolescents. In this second leg of a three-part series on youth wellness in the county, discover how our teens are coping with stress, lack of services, and mental health issues—and find out what the county is doing about it.

Last week we covered the county’s “missing children,” revealing that the chronic absentee rate for schools in Calaveras has more than doubled since 2018-2019, and is also more than twice that of the state, according to data from the California Department of Education. Kids are missing school for a number of reasons, including troubles at home and depression, according to Calaveras County Office of Education (CCOE) Superintendent Scott Nanik. The Covid-19 pandemic further complicated things, with schools and parents’ jobs closing, virtual learning challenges, and some families threatening to keep kids home over policy issues surrounding masks and vaccines. Childcare options also became even more limited, and transportation continues to be a challenge for families in rural areas where public transportation access is few and far between, and not every home has access to an automobile.

Unfortunately for Calaveras youth, missing school can mean even greater struggles with mental health and can contribute to abusive or unsafe environments at home, according to Fara Roberts of Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) and the Prevent Child Abuse Council (PCAC).

In an interview with the Enterprise, Roberts talked about the research she has been doing for PCAC, which is a multi-organization coalition with the aim of improving “the well-being of all families in Calaveras County through safe and healthy relationships within homes, schools, and communities.”

According to Roberts, school campuses are “the most common place families are going to for help.” Families suffer when they lose access to the support and services they’d typically get from schools. Roberts said, “there’s not a whole lot of other centralized support like there might be in larger counties … like family wellness centers, or big organizations that offer mentorship to a vast array of children that are in really challenging families.”

Calaveras schools are back to in-person learning, however, and have even implemented new wellness centers in all elementary schools in the last few months. According to Roberts, the wellness centers are being “pretty heavily utilized so far,” offering therapy and crisis support to children and parents as well as referrals for things like clothing, food, and other services offered by community organizations.

Roberts hopes that the student wellness centers will expand into community centers or family resource centers (FRC) like the ones that Nexus Family Services already operate in Amador County.

“Part of our prevention is to look deeper into expanding these wellness centers … to being a whole community hub for families to go to … not only are they getting mental health services, but they have referrals to anything else they need,” said Roberts.

The FRCs “offer access to programs, services, and events that strengthen the community and enhance the quality of life of Amador County residents,” according to Nexus Family Services’ website. The centers provide access to family advocates, who are trained professionals that provide case management for families to help them locate resources that “support personal growth, mental health stability, wellness, and resiliency.” The centers also provide therapy via licensed mental health professionals.

Unlike Amador, mental health resources are severely lacking in Calaveras County. A 2019 report by Mark Twain Medical Center (MTMC), located in San Andreas, assessed the community’s needs for mental health, among other healthcare needs. The report found that the ratio of population to mental health providers in Calaveras is 630 to one. This is more than twice the state ratio, and a higher number than the population of many of our towns. Adding to the scarcity is the fact that the majority of the county is made up of small towns and rural areas, where there may be no mental health providers at all.

This lack of access to care may be a reason why 35% of Calaveras students surveyed reported experiencing chronic sadness and/or hopelessness, according to a “child wellness” report by Children Now for the 2020-2021 school year.

Other issues noted by MTMC’s Community Health Needs Assessment include the fact that primary care, specialists, and dental practitioners are also in short supply, “and many are retiring or leaving the county” or difficult to recruit from other areas.

A lack of medical care is one of the factors leading to child abuse and neglect in the county, according to Roberts. Parents struggling with disease, poor health, and medical complications are unable to provide consistent, adequate care for children. Data compiled by shows that in 2020, Calaveras students reported a higher rate of abuse and neglect than in surrounding counties at 96.6 per 1,000 kids, and almost double that of the state at 43.5.

The board of supervisors recently recognized April as Child Abuse Prevention Month, and proclaimed the month as “Be The One” Month in Calaveras County after the First 5 and PCAC child abuse awareness campaign of the same name. On April 20, the committee will honor nominees who have provided “remarkable support to children” at the virtual ceremony for the annual Light of Hope Awards.

Drug abuse and addiction are also factors that contribute to child abuse and neglect, and yet there are no local rehabilitation centers. If a struggling caretaker needed help to get off of drugs or alcohol, they would have to leave the county.

MTMC’s report states, “People in mental distress frequently end up in the hospital emergency department or involving law enforcement. The County government’s behavioral health services program sees only Medi‐Cal patients, and for children has only a specialty mental health program intended for those with moderate to severe conditions.”

In 2019, 54 children ages 5-14 in the Calaveras, Amador, Tuolumne, and Mariposa areas were admitted to a hospital for mental health issues (excluding those related to substance abuse) according to data from Nearly 100 teens ages 15-19 were also admitted for mental health reasons. This number has grown exponentially over the last several years, with only 15 admissions among young children in 2010.

Alarmingly, MTMC’s assessment reports that the “mortality rate for ‘self‐harm and interpersonal violence’ (in Calaveras County) is 50 percent higher than the U.S. and twice the level for California,” with an estimated county suicide rate of 31 per 1,000 people, according to an age-adjusted population‐weighted 2016 report from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

Suicide may seem like something that happens elsewhere, but it is a rising concern in Calaveras, especially among our youth. Twenty-one-point-six percent of Calaveras high school freshmen and 21.3% of juniors surveyed reported having suicidal thoughts or contemplating suicide. The rate was even higher among “non-traditional” students, at 27.9%. Trends show that while California’s overall rate has gone down in recent years, suicidal thoughts among Calaveras high schoolers have steadily increased since 2015. Results from 2019 to 2021 are not included in this data.

In the United States, “suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people ages 10-19,” and is on the rise, according to

While bullying has also decreased slightly in recent years, it is still a contributing factor to child mental health, especially for queer or non-heterosexual students and those of Indigenous, Black, Hispanic, or Asian races.

For the years 2017-2019, over 20% more Black students in Calaveras County reported being bullied than white students, at a whopping 54%. Hispanic or Latino students also reported bullying with 43.7% of surveyed students saying they’d experienced some bullying or harassment, while 37.9% of Asian students reported being bullied. Thirty-five percent of Indigenous students reported bullying as well.

Gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth reported being bullied and harassed at a rate of 59.9% while 31.9% of youth who identified as straight reported being bullied. Other students who reported bullying but did not identify as gay or straight, also reported bullying at a percentage of 55.9. Of all seventh graders surveyed, 38.5% reported some bullying, as did 38% of ninth graders, and 31.3% of 11th graders.

CCOE offers bullying prevention information, with links to “online training modules relating to bullying or bullying prevention” which is required for “all certificated and all other school site employees who have regular interaction with students.”

A statement on CCOE’s website states, “CCOE recognizes the harmful effects of bullying on student well-being, student learning, and school attendance and desires to provide a safe school environment that protects students from physical and emotional harm.”

Growing concern over youth mental well-being has led to the addition of wellness centers and mental health programs in our schools. Calaveras County Office of Education is taking steps to mitigate these concerns, with funding support for programs from Calaveras County Behavioral Health Services and the Mental Health Services Act.

Breaking Down the Walls, a program instituted at Calaveras middle and high schools, “is designed to engage every student in a grade or on a campus to create a positive and supportive campus climate,” and “promotes mental wellness, acceptance, and cohesiveness among students and the community.” The program includes Student Leader Training and workshops designed “to create empathy, build social awareness, and create meaningful relationships with peers outside their traditional friend group,” according to the program website.

The county also maintains a website that offers mental health resources for students, like links to the California Department of Education Youth Suicide Prevention website, advice on dealing with coronavirus-related anxiety, and a list of crisis numbers to call or text (listed at end of article).

With the addition of family resource centers, even families who aren’t connected to services in schools or online would have the opportunity to access resources for food, transportation, referrals to services for mental and physical health, parental education, chemical dependency treatment and other necessities.

That’s why Robin Davis, program coordinator for First 5 Calaveras (commission of Calaveras Health and Human Services), says First 5 and PCAC are working towards “the goal of creating a “one-stop-shop where people come and can get everything in one place,” like the resource centers in other counties.

She also wants to see more education on mental health practices, like mindfulness for both students and parents.

“That’s also what a lot of our education has been about, which is really awesome. You know, getting real, and not just all this mumbo jumbo government stuff.”

Additionally, Davis says we need more trauma-informed care, which she defines as “making sure that every person that works in a system, whether it’s a school or an agency or a hospital, that they understand the prevalence of trauma, and adversity.”

“The bottom line of all this prevention work, honestly, is we want to create collaborative systems that are trauma-informed and address inequities,” says Davis. “That would include knowing what the types of trauma are … whether it’s ‘I was in a fire’ or ‘my parents got divorced’... all the way to sexual abuse,” explains Davis. “And that they recognize the effects on people’s health and behavior, that it affects their decision making … so that we can be compassionate towards people when we serve them.”

Making systemic changes and building new resources takes time, coordination at the state and county level, and plenty of funding. The commission is planning to bring all of its research to the First Annual Calaveras County Child Abuse Prevention Summit later this month, with the hopes of achieving higher-level support. Collaboration amongst government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and the community at large could have a real impact on the issues Calaveras families and youth are facing.

If you are or someone you know is in crisis, text “HOME” to 741741 or call (209) 754-3239 / (800) 499-3030 for crisis prevention assistance.

Teens can speak to “highly trained teen listeners” by calling the Teen line at (800) 852-8336 or texting TEEN to 839863. Email support is also available.

The Peer-Run WarmLine can be reached at (855) 845-7415 and is a “non-emergency resource for anyone in California seeking mental and emotional support. We provide assistance via phone and web chat on a nondiscriminatory basis to anyone in need.”

This article is part of a three-part series on factors impacting the wellness of Calaveras County youth and families, and what the community can do to help. Next week, we’ll take a look at Calaveras County’s high rate of child abuse and neglect, and what organizations and some individuals in the county are doing to help curb it.