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Alliance focuses on students’ wellness: Students, teachers, legislators, school officials meet to address solutions

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A wellness study with data drawn from 5,000 San Mateo County students revealed some startling statistics about suicidal thoughts, gender bias, sexual orientation discrimination and overall mental health but also provided solutions and ways for the community to engage in addressing the issues.

From right, Assemblyman Rich Gordon, D-Menlo Park, state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, San Mateo County Supervisor Warren Slocum and county Superintendent Anne Campbell and Louise Rogers, deputy chief of San Mateo County Health System, discussed the importance of health and wellness in schools.

The study was presented by the recently formed San Mateo County School Wellness Alliance to a group of educators, legislators, parents and students Wednesday to discuss the findings and policy recommendations.

Max Weinstein, a 17-year-old Mills High School student and chair of the San Mateo County Youth Commission, presented the highlights in the commission’s 2014-15 Adolescent Report. The commission collected the data and Weinstein said some of the results were troubling.

“The mental health findings, those were distressing. More than 70 percent of San Mateo County kids have depressive thoughts,” Weinstein said. “Mostly it was kind of scary because it’s pretty preventable. You need to find that balance between health and schoolwork.”

The study also found approximately 38 percent of local high school girls and 28 percent of boys have had suicidal thoughts. Gender bias and sexual orientation discrimination are also issues prevalent in school systems today. The report makes a broad swath of recommendations from offering free breakfasts at schools to educating teachers on recognizing signs of depression and offering tax incentives for employers training disconnected youth to strengthening safety nets for single parents.

Ensuring students are mentally and physically healthy plays a vital role in academic success, said Dr. Karin Li, wellness coordinator at the Sequoia Union High School District.

The Alliance bridges information and wellness programs at eight school districts: Sequoia, Redwood City Elementary, Belmont-Redwood Shores Elementary, San Carlos Elementary, Menlo Park City Elementary, Las Lomitas Elementary, Portola Valley Elementary and Woodside Elementary.

“We now have more of an organized effort in all the school districts to really focus on how health and wellness programs can really affect the goals of the district, so it’s a partnership. So I think before the [Alliance], it was just very difficult to address the components of health and wellness because it just takes time and creativity and looking for funding,” Li said.

Significant progress has been made over the last five years since the Sequoia Healthcare District began with a $4.5 million Healthy Schools Initiative grant that covered three years, Li said. Now, the Sequoia and Peninsula health care districts contribute millions of dollars annually, Li said.

The Alliance programs focus on eight components that provide a more holistic approach to healthy and successful students, Li said. Health and physical education, health and nutrition services, psychological and mental health services, safety and healthy school environment, staff wellness and family and community education, Li said.

It’s important to have buy-in from everyone involved in a student’s life; from their parents to teachers and school boards to bus drivers, Li said.

“Then the most powerful group, I think, are the students, because that’s where the change can really happen. Parents and teachers can talk until they’re blue in the face, but when students are involved, it’s so much more powerful because students listen to other students,” Li said.

Weinstein agreed peer-to-peer education is extremely powerful.

“[Students] are less likely to listen to a parent who tells them not to engage in risky behavior than a peer who tells them not to engage in risky behavior,” Weinstein said.

Gathering information for the report and hearing firsthand what types of issues students are struggling with, then having students help create policy recommendations is vital, Weinstein said.

“The power of data to precipitate change is really powerful. I like all the data the report got because I believe it will help influence policy makers,” Weinstein said.

State Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, Assemblyman Rich Gordon, D-Menlo Park, San Mateo County Supervisor Warren Slocum and county Superintendent Anne Campbell joined the Alliance’s meeting Wednesday for a panel discussion.

“You can’t expect to have good educational results unless you have good health and wellness. So it’s the Legislature’s role to do what we can to improve all three of those components,” Hill said prior to the meeting. “We all have to work hand in hand and the program with the School Wellness Alliance is the vehicle and the conduit for the communication.”

The Alliance and wellness coordinators, who are afforded by the health care districts’ grant funding, sponsor a variety of programs such as CPR classes, mental health intervention, stress reduction meditation groups, nutrition training, drugs and bullying prevention and more, Li said.

“It ranges from social and emotional health to cardiac screenings and everything in between. So it’s really exciting work and I love my job and it’s very impactful. You talk to any of the wellness coordinators and they touch so many lives with their work,” Li said.

Weinstein said he was extremely shy before becoming involved in the commission and working with other students. Weinstein, who will graduate high school this year, said he’s learned how important health and wellness is for students and their futures.

“I really do believe in the power of youth development programs,” Weinstein said. “Especially to cultivate leaders.”

For more information about the San Mateo County School Wellness Alliance visit smchealth.org/schoolwellness.

To review the San Mateo County Youth Commission’s 2014-15 Adolescent report visit gethealthysmc.org.

samantha@smdailyjournal.com

(650) 344-5200 ext. 106

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