• Pasadena First Lady Maria Mascoli Tornek shares local mental health resources (Photo - W.K.).

      Pasadena First Lady Maria Mascoli Tornek shares local mental health resources (Photo – W.K.).

      If you know four other people, then you know someone struggling with a serious mental health issue. Maybe that person is you.

      By Melanie Hooks

      Pasadena’s First Lady Maria Mascoli Tornek is getting the word out for Mental Health Awareness Month, that just wrapped up May 31. She believes this issue, which directly affects 20% of the population, should have a year-round platform, especially in our area schools.

      Recently Mrs. Tornek visited a Pasadena Educational Foundation meeting to begin ‘peeling back the artichoke’ of mental wellness issues and regional youth. “My passion goes to the children,” she says. As a former public school teacher herself, she feels a great urgency to support troubled kids before they become embroiled with the law or take out their frustrations in violence against their peers.

      She is inspired by a Burbank program, which now supports mental health drop-in centers for both its high schools. Ideally, she’d like to see these centers replicated in all high schools and middle schools in Pasadena.

      Suicide – Second Biggest Killer of Teenagers

      Teenage suicide is on the rise (Photo - Department of Defense, U.S.).

      Teenage suicide is on the rise (Photo – Department of Defense, U.S.).

      Mrs. Tornek points to the troubling statistics on middle school girls being especially vulnerable. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports a tripling of the suicide rate in girls aged 10-14 over the last fifteen years. Boys are at serious risk as well, with suicide being the second highest cause of death among both genders aged 15 to 24.

      Anecdotal evidence from school staff throughout southern California bears out this trend. Danielle Stagg Yee, a school social worker in San Diego County, says the trend of suicidal ideation –  thinking seriously about committing suicide – has been especially startling in the last five years.

      Elaine Lomas, Program Head of Pasadena Unified School District’s Mental Health Services, reports the same trend. She has seen a large rise in those numbers, as well as for self-harm such as cutting, over the last ten years, she says, and most noticeably amongst girls.

      NAMI’s website indicates that 90% of people experiencing suicidal thoughts have underlying mental health issues – depression; eating disorders; reactions to trauma, neglect and abuse.  When anyone, adult or child, gets treated for those problems, they are far more likely to avoid ending up as a death statistic.

      Because teenaged brains haven’t yet fully developed abstract concepts associated with risk or death, they are especially prone to believe that they’ll somehow witness the pain their death has wrought on others, such as the young protagonist in the new Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, a suicide revenge fantasy told by the victim herself. Unlike the girl on TV, real kids don’t get to come back and watch what happens ‘after.’ But they might not actually understand that, according to both Lomas and NAMI. Especially because they’re seeing it on TV, their own brains are processing that experience as an ongoing life. They truly don’t understand the finality of their actions.

      Resources for Kids in PUSD

       Pasadena Unified School District (Photo - flickr, Brigham Yen)

      Pasadena Unified School District (Photo – flickr, Brigham Yen)

      About 15 years ago, Lomas says, Pasadena Unified School District began coordinating its mental health efforts with the Los Angeles County of Mental Health, including its child welfare offices. Today PUSD can claim to provide mental health service to any diagnosed child with health insurance. And since California implemented the Affordable Care Act (ACA), all children under 18, documented or undocumented, can receive insurance via Medical. In addition, PUSD itself wrote and received a grant that covers anyone uninsured as well via a partnership with the USC School of Social Work. This has greatly expanded the departments’ abilities to serve all children needing mental health support.

      The drawback in the system is that word “diagnosed.” Even with a staff of 25+ social workers, six to eight USC interns, substance abuse prevention and rehabilitation specialists, a psychiatrist and a Registered Nurse, PUSD mental health providers have their hands full treating the people already identified with symptoms.

      The kind of ‘drop-in’ center that Burbank provides – that is, the open-door style ‘counselor’s office’ that many people envision – does not exist on most of PUSD’s 32 campuses.

      Ms. Lomas would love to have them of course, just as Mrs. Tornek would, on all middle and high school campuses. Lomas says the district would need at least one full-time staff member dedicated to each campus to “triage” the walk-ins and direct them to appropriate support or provide it onsite. Those positions would need to be funded by the district versus ACA or other state/federal funds, in order to maintain them year-to-year.

      Funding requires political will. Burbank reports it was able to secure the money for its two centers in just two years. Will Pasadena find that same drive?

      Who to Call for Help
      Here are a few resources to consider:
      National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 
      800-273-TALKprovides 24/7 support for people
      in distress and prevention and crisis resources.
      The Crisis Text Line
      Text “NAMI” to 741741 to connect with a trained
      crisis counselor.
      This is NAMI’s safe community for teens and young adults
      struggling with mental health problems. Anyone may share
      a personal story of recovery, tragedy, struggle or hope.
      Starting the Conversation: College and Your Mental Health
      A guide for both parents and young adults to start important
      conversations about mental health before the college years.
      NAMI Ending the Silence 
      An in-classroom presentation that helps middle and high schoolers
      understand mental illness. During the 50-minute presentation,
      a young adult living with mental illness and their family member
      tell their stories about mental health challenges.
      Say it Out Loud 
      This toolkit will help adults talk to teens about mental health.
      The toolkit includes a film, discussion guide, presentation
      and fact sheets to help start the conversation.
      The NAMI HelpLine 
      800-950-6264 or info@nami.org can offer you empathy and support
      and provide you information about resources in your community.
      Los Angeles County Mental Health Hotline
      For crisis counseling, confidential mental health information,
      and referrals to service providers,
      24 hours day/7 days/week, call 1-800-854-7771

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