Bay Area schools invest in social workers to fight mental health crisis

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SAN JOSE – As kids return to school across the Bay Area, schools are grappling with increased mental health issues among students.  Three years after the pandemic, many school districts are still playing catch up, trying to address an explosion of cases. 

When Cassandra Lopez, a student at William C. Overfelt High School in East San Jose was just 9-years-old, she realized something about her was off. 

“I would cry a lot and I didn’t even know why,” she recalled. “My head felt really heavy.”

For years, Lopez prayed it was just a phase. But when the pandemic hit, things began to spin out of control.

“It kind of got to the point where I couldn’t leave my house,” she recalled. “I didn’t really want to eat. I couldn’t move out of bed.”

 It got so bad that in 2021, she tried to end her life, not once but twice. It wasn’t until a chance encounter at her school that she was finally able to turn things around.

 “I was crying right here in this hallway and that’s when I met Lazaro,” Lopez said, pointing to an area in the hallway.

Lazaro Jaimez is a school social worker. For the last couple of years Lopez has been seeing him once a week. And while her road to recovery is not over yet, she’s found something she thought she’d lost: hope.  

 “I’ve realized that there’s a lot of meaning in life,” Lopez said.  

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly one in four high school students experienced similar challenges during Covid.

Lopez’s school district recorded a 60% spike in mental health referrals since the pandemic began. It’s one of the reasons the district spent a big chunk of its Covid relief fund not on new computers but on more social workers.  

Vito Chiala, the school’s principal, said thanks to that money, he was able to hire Jaimez, essentially doubling his mental health staff. That meant being able to keep its wellness center open all day instead of just a few hours. 

 “First and foremost, we have to take care of who they are as humans, who they are as people,” Chiala said, “and that meant not pretending that their mental health issues didn’t exist, but meeting them where they are. And helping them to thrive and recover fully so they can engage in school and education.”

Jaimez said even he couldn’t believe how many students needed help.

“There was a lot of anxiety, a lot of depression, a lot of our students were struggling with suicidal thoughts,” he told KPIX. 

As for Lopez, she’s a happy senior these days with dreams of becoming a social worker herself. 

“I just want to be there for anyone that feels like this because no one should feel left alone,” she said.  

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