Muffled chatter is barely audible through the 12 closed doors lining the drab hallway of the Tower Building’s second floor. According to Elizabeth Spector, Paly’s Mental Health and Wellness Officer, students visit the floor largely to take part in a variety of therapeutic activities. For example, some teachers lead students in painting their own tranquil beach, complete with palm trees and coconuts. In other cases, students recount their experiences of the week to a therapist —from the anxiety of interactions at home to the severity of chronic depression.
A single flight of stairs separates 12 full-time mental health professionals from the rest of the campus, and while many students are unaware of mental health services available to them or even the existence of a second floor in the Tower Building, others use the resources regularly. From Monday to Friday, Paly’s mental health professionals meet with several students each day — by appointment or in times of crisis — to discuss and develop coping strategies for their everyday lives.
Spector said Paly counseling is an easily accessible way for students to receive professional counseling at no cost while enjoying confidentiality between themselves and their counselor.
When a student begins counseling, they are asked to sign a form requiring parental consent. According to Spector, however, extenuating circumstances sometimes allow students to forgo parental consent if it could be counterproductive or dangerous for a parent to find out about their child’s mental health issues.
Spector said Paly prefers to include families in the therapy process, but even if a parent consents to their child’s therapy, what is said in the sessions remains protected.
“(A) therapist is never going to share anything with your family without talking about it with you first unless it’s a safety concern, (such as suicidal or homicidal ideation) in which case it’s going to be shared for your own safety.”
Unless a student approaches the Wellness Center to report child abuse or a suicidal or homicidal intent, students who request counseling will usually be referred to a school psychologist for evaluation and assessment.
According to school psychologist Jaimie Fanciullo these assessments take many forms — from parent and teacher interviews to cognitive and educational assessments. Additionally, school psychologists field a variety of concerns from teachers about their students’ emotional health, academic struggles and social skills.
Described by some Tower Building staff as the “gatekeepers” of mental health services, the number of school psychologists at Paly has increased significantly in recent years from just one in 2012 to three and an intern in 2018.
Fanciullo said as awareness of mental health services has increased, the nation is currently in the midst of a shortage of school psychologists.
According to Fanciullo, the demand is apparent at Paly, as psychologists are approached on a daily basis by students and faculty alike.
After completing the evaluation stage, some students are referred to therapists employed by Counseling and Support Services for Youth, a Silicon Valley nonprofit contracted by the Palo Alto Unified School District since October 2017.
Unlike school psychologists, therapists primarily work with students to improve their clarity of thinking and develop coping strategies they can use in their everyday lives. For the 2018-19 school year, Paly has two full-time CASSY therapists and a supervisor who hope to improve Paly’s environment by encouraging acceptance of academic diversity.
“You guys work so hard to be academically strong as students at Paly or in the community, and yet you’re all so different, and so it’s important for us to help people realize their learning diversity—that you’re not all the same and that we’re here to support you individually,” Fanciullo said.
According to Paly CASSY therapist Eva Martinez, if a student was referred to her by the Wellness Center staff, she would begin with an intake session to understand what student wanted to work on. An intake session is the first step in CASSY therapists’ 12 session model — meeting weekly in 30 to 40 minute sessions for three months — designed to meet a student’s specific objective.
“If somebody came in and told me that they want to feel less anxious, then perhaps a good goal would be practicing using coping skills or calming techniques every week,” Martinez said. “That’s something I check in (on) with them every week to see how they’re doing.”
On an average day, Martinez will meet with three to five students, many of whom are attending their weekly session. After their 12th meeting, each student’s case is managed flexibly.
If a student feels they have accomplished their objective, Martinez connects them to local organizations such as the Children’s Health Council to receive additional therapy. Alternatively, if a student is unable to use another organization’s therapy, Martinez will continue their therapy sessions at Paly.
Alternatively, students with more severe conditions or a history of mental health issues are sometimes referred to Educationally Related Mental Health Services (ERMHS), whose offices and classrooms are also located on the Tower Building’s second floor. Unlike CASSY, students referred to ERMHS usually meet with a therapist for a year or longer and participate in one of two classes that serve as group therapy sessions.
ERMHS Therapist Melissa Garner co-teaches Therapeutic Elective Class on the second floor of the Tower Building, and describes it as an introduction to therapy where students participate in activities that teach coping strategies.
After some time in Therapeutic Elective Class, many students transition into Therapy Academic Planning, another class held on the second floor, focusing primarily on the implementation of these strategies in relation to students’ classes.
Students receive academic credit for the class and a pass or fail grade on their transcript. Between eight and 10 students are enrolled across both classes at any given time, and while they do receive academic credit, they do not receive a grade.
“(Both classes) tend to be very small and intimate, and we do that on purpose because the larger the class gets, the more difficult I think it gets for kids to be open and share,” Garner said.
Some students enrolled in Therapy Elective Class or Therapy Academic Planning have never attended a class and are unable to do so due to concurrent enrollment in an intensive outpatient program, hospitalization or a mental health condition with psychosomatic symptoms.
According to Garner, Paly mental health services will go to extraordinary lengths to ensure each student gets the treatment they need, sometimes collaborating with outside organizations.
One such collaboration is with the nonprofit Asian Americans for Community Involvement. At the end of the month of October, Emily Chu, a behavioral health counselor from AACI, began holding therapy sessions at Paly every Friday.
“(I) provide culturally and linguistically competent counseling services to students in Paly. I can conduct sessions in both Mandarin and English fluently.”
According to Chu, she was contracted because Paly recognized a growing need for a therapist that could effectively communicate with Mandarin-speaking students and parents. Her services, however, are available to all of the student body.
“The service is open to any students, but especially for Mandarin-speaking students and Asian/Chinese American students who are deeply affected by Chinese cultures,” Chu said in an email.
According to Chu, every resource the school offers to the student body aims to create a more safe and accepting school atmosphere.
Chu said, “By getting to know mental health services from wellness center such as an (introductory) session with therapist, students and parents can reduce their stigma toward mental health services and know the purpose of therapy is to create a healthier school life and know they are not alone.”