Pebble Beach Company Foundation, Montage Health Foundation, and Ohana partner with local schools to improve teen mental health
In the spring of 2021, the Pebble Beach Company Foundation Board of Directors surveyed more than 50 educators across the county, representing pre-kindergarten to college-level students, to hear, firsthand, what they believe are the main challenges facing youth today.
The overwhelming response was mental health.
Specific replies cited youth struggling to trust authority and to commit to anything that suggested “establishment.” Educators also referred to an inability among students to develop a vision for their future, a sense of self, or of hope.
“Emotional wellbeing is fundamental to academic achievement. A child cannot focus on learning when struggling with mental wellness. Our Foundation’s mission is to provide educational opportunities and a brighter future for all Monterey County youth. We heard, in these survey responses, an opportunity to make a difference.”
—Susan Merfeld, president, Pebble Beach Company Foundation, senior vice president, Community Affairs
That’s why when Montage Health Foundation submitted a grant application in the interest of developing a three-year initiative to bring Ohana mental wellness services to local middle school students, the Pebble Beach Company Foundation knew they’d met their match.
A Hawaiian word that refers to family in all its forms—blood-related, adoptive, and chosen—Ohana was established to serve the mental and behavioral healthcare needs of patients, from childhood to early adulthood, and their families.
Montage Health Foundation was looking for community partners to help expand Ohana programs to reach more young people in their daily lives, to strengthen social-emotional skills and reduce the rates of mental health challenges that require treatment in a clinical setting. The three organizations discussed their shared goals, and identified MPUSD as an additional partner to help launch a three-year pilot program.
“This is exactly the type of impactful community partnership we want to help build,” says Kevin Causey, vice president and chief development officer of Montage Health Foundation. “We all share the goal of improving mental wellness for young people in our community — and by partnering with other mission-driven, local organizations, we can make a more profound and long-lasting impact.”
Montage Health Foundation’s grant application outlined a plan to provide preventive and educational mental wellness services by a trained Ohana child psychotherapist, to invest in supporting mental wellness and psycho-social development of students attending all three MPUSD middle schools: Los Arboles, Seaside Middle, and Walter Colton.
Even pre-pandemic, mental health issues among kids were of considerable concern to Monterey Peninsula Unified School District (MPUSD) Superintendent PK Diffenbaugh. Yet the impact COVID has had on students and their mental health, he says, cannot be overstated.
“We find among students,” he says, “an increase in self-harm, cutting, suicide ideation, depression, anorexia, and social isolation, at a scale we have not seen before. This raises a huge concern for us as educators.”
MPUSD has done a lot to create an infrastructure to support social and emotional wellbeing, he says, but the district lacked the expertise to support students with the range of acute needs at the scale they have been experiencing. In collaboration with Ohana, they now have that expertise.
Implementing a Mental Wellness Program
Through the three-year, $150,000 grant awarded by the Pebble Beach Company Foundation to Montage Health Foundation, and an additional $150,000 matching grant provided by Montage Health Foundation, Ohana will provide a child therapist to work with groups of middle-school students on each campus to strengthen their mental wellness skills.
Middle school is a time when kids are just beginning to develop the capacity to observe their internal reality, to articulate their feelings, and to bear them long enough to figure out who they are, what they need, and what they can do. Those who get stuck in their thinking and feeling are at a disadvantage, believing they are not capable of handling challenges themselves.
“The goal of the initiative is to build students’ skills in social and self-awareness, as well as emotional resilience. Initially, the program will focus on eighth-grade students as they prepare to move on to high school.”
—Dr. Susan Swick, executive director, Ohana
Ohana therapist Molly Hansen, LMFT, has already begun to implement the program. An experienced, school-based therapist, Hansen has been present on each campus, so students can become familiar with her and develop trust.
“I am dedicating an entire month at each of the three school sites,” she says, “so I can integrate myself into the campus culture. I am doing a lot of listening and am offering a lot of resilience training and mindfulness skill building to add another level of support for these students.”
Ultimately, the goal is to help kids develop skills and thrive, to help them understand that difficulty is part of growth and joy, and to help their parents recognize this, as well.
“Any time we can interact directly with kids to work on skill building,” says Hansen, “we know we can make a difference.”
The need for clinical services to address mental health problems for children and teenagers is merely the tip of the iceberg.
“It is very well established,” says Ohana Executive Director Dr. Susan Swick, “that psychiatric problems are common in childhood, affecting between 25 and 30 percent of kids before they turn 18. Moreover, 50 percent of lifetime mental illness presents by age 15, and 75 percent emerges by age 24, around the time when the brain has completed the maturation process that happens during adolescence.”
Everything we’re not seeing below the tip of the iceberg, she says, amounts to a lot of unutilized opportunities to equip children and adolescents with the knowledge, skills, and support to help build mental fitness. The medical community works hard to develop medical immunity in elementary school children. Middle school students are in the crucial years for building a robust system of psychological immunity.
“All the way through 12th grade,” says Dr. Swick, “kids are developing their psychological immunity by dealing with uncomfortable emotions, having new experiences with people, building meaningful relationships, mastering a challenge. It’s all pretty messy, fraught with tears and falls and scuffed-up knees, like learning to ride a bike. But at the end, they learn they can master these challenges, that they can address and resolve issues.”
Thanks to the support of the Pebble Beach Company Foundation, Montage Health Foundation, and the community, Montage Health is bringing “Ohana” into the schools to meet middle-school children where they are.