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As S.F. students grapple with pandemic’s emotional toll, mobile mental health team rushes in

After a year of school closures and isolation, many Bay Area students are suffering. Parents and teachers have reported failing grades and rising depression. Suicide attempts in adolescents are skyrocketing.

To meet the emerging crisis, San Francisco is expanding a mobile response team that provides mental health and wellness services to children, including the school district’s students.

The mobile mental health crisis service, operated by nonprofit Seneca Family of Agencies, can “respond to whatever the need is, whenever the need is, wherever the need is,” said Amy Kirsztajn, regional director of San Francisco programs. The team provides non-police and age-appropriate help for children experiencing a mental health crisis or in need of preventative care, ranging from counseling to crisis prevention.

The program, started in 2019, provided services to nearly 200 families before the pandemic. The expansion will allow the team to serve about 80 more families over the course of a year, and the team’s services are free to families. Kirsztajn explained that she and her team have seen a shift in the past year in the families they’re helping.

To request 24-hour help from the Mobile Response Team, call 415-255-3737. For follow-up help, call 415-970-4000.

“I think small things just get big a lot more quickly,” she said.

The program initially offered services to children or teens involved in child welfare services or youth involved with the juvenile probation department. It’s funded by the city as part of Mayor London Breed’s initiatives to support mental health in schools. The city spends about $2.2 million on the program every year, and set aside an extra $400,000 to expand its services during the pandemic.

With San Francisco’s classrooms closed for more than a year, many students haven’t been able to access the counseling and mental health services available at school. The district’s wellness checks found that about a quarter of families were not doing well.

“We have lost the luxury of having students in a school building, where they can come and talk to someone in a private space,” said Kevin Gogin, director of safety and wellness at San Francisco Unified School District.

An empty classroom at Sankofa Academy on the first day of school on Monday, Aug. 10, 2020 in Oakland, California.
An empty classroom at Sankofa Academy on the first day of school on Monday, Aug. 10, 2020 in Oakland, California.Gabrielle Lurie / The Chronicle 2020

The mobile team is “another tool in our toolbox” to meet the needs of these families, he said.

After addressing the initial crisis, the team helps coordinate care with the family moving forward, whether it is developing short- and medium- term care plans or helping to find long-term services.

Families can connect with the mobile team through a referral by a teacher or social worker at their school, or by calling the team’s hot line.

The team then does a quick assessment of what help is needed and sends mental health professionals to the home. If police or a hospital are not needed, “then they’re really working directly to de-escalate the immediate situation and then stay with the family,” Kirsztajn said. Families can then make appointments with the team in the following days to help link students to long-term services. The team can stay involved with families for up to 60 days, and clients can be referred to the team again at any point if they are still eligible.

“Our job isn’t just to deal with the crisis,” Ken Berrick, president and CEO of Seneca Family of Agencies, said in an interview with The Chronicle. “We’re there to help children and families through the most difficult times of their lives.” He explained that crisis can include behavioral issues or students who have stopped coming to class.

Ultimately, they hope such programs will keep children and families out of higher-level services and lower barriers to care “so that we’re really not waiting until it is this exceptional crisis that results in hospitalization,” said Toby Ewing, executive director of the California Mental Health Services Oversight and Accountability Commission, who works with the Seneca Family of Agencies to advocate for expanding mental health services.