SMMUSD plans to opt in to free virtual mental health counseling services for k-12

Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District administration office in Santa Monica, California. Photo by Samantha Bravo.

On Feb. 2, LA County Office of Education (LACOE) officials announced that they’re teaming up with school-based telehealth company Hazel Health, Inc., based in San Francisco, to make virtual therapy available to the county’s 1.3 million students in public K-12 schools.

Local school districts can opt-in to Hazel Health’s virtual therapy services, provided by “compassionate, licensed therapists,” which students can access from home or school. The LA Unified School District and Compton School District have already signed up, and dozens more districts are expected to opt in over the next few months. The services will be available to students regardless of insurance coverage.

A spokesperson for Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District told The Malibu Times that the district’s Director of Student Services Tara Brown had attended the virtual LACOE meeting with Hazel Health last week and followed up by expressing interest in SMMUSD’s participation.

“We (SMMUSD) will be part of the program’s Cohort 2, starting in the fall,” according to the spokesperson. “In the near future, the Board of Education will approve the Memo of Understanding (MOU) with Hazel Health based on staff recommendation so we may get set up to launch in the fall.”

The district pointed out that it already offers “robust [mental health] services and resources for our students” … “In Malibu, the Malibu Boys & Girls Club Wellness Center is a big partner for us in offering mental health services and programming to our students … But we’re looking forward to adding additional services through a partnership with Hazel Health.”

The SMMUSD website recognizes that, “Students struggling with emotional / interpersonal issues, traumatic experiences and/or symptoms of depression, anxiety, relationship difficulties, grief and loss, etc., can experience challenges with school attendance, behavior, and academics.”

Once the school district has officially enrolled in the Hazel Health program, LACOE and Hazel Health will provide information to parents and students on how they can start services.

LA County Superintendent of Schools Debra Duardo told a press conference last week that the need for these services has always existed, but has become more necessary since the pandemic. 

“We also know that there have been other societal challenges, such as the violence we saw last week, and these are things that our children have to learn how to cope with as they continue their education,” she said.

Others point to the stress of climate change, racial injustice, income inequality, as well as other factors, like the Woolsey Fire here in Malibu, which all have an impact on young people’s mental health.

According to Gov. Newsom’s Master Plan for Kids’ Mental Health, in California, “66 percent of kids with depression do not receive treatment.”

The state is seeing an influx of federal money intended to help address the youth mental health crisis. LA Care Health Plan and Health Net have set aside up to $24 million over the next two years for the telehealth services. That funding comes from the state’s Student Behavioral Health Incentive Program.

The Hazel Health platform will allow K-12 students to get access to virtual therapy with California-licensed therapists. The company says roughly 60 percent of its therapists are people of color and some 30 percent are bilingual. The services will be available virtually, both at school and at home. Students can check out an iPad or log in from their own smartphone or other device.

The LAist website reported that “Parents will be able to message their child’s therapist at any time through Hazel Health’s app in order to get a summary of progress, but will not get a full report of the session’s notes or specific details.” 

Referrals will be accepted from a parent, guardian, school counselors, and other school staff. As of now, referrals cannot come from an outside physician nor other provider.