These Know Your Rights materials and linked resources discuss sensitive or triggering information on topics including but not limited to alcohol/drugs, child abuse, self-harm, and suicide. Please practice self-care.
If you need immediate help related to mental health or suicide, please see the resources at the bottom of the page and contact someone immediately.
To learn more about Student Health rights, visit https://www.myschoolmyrights.com/student-health-rights.
Can my school tell me how to access mental health supports at school?
Yes. Your mental health can impact your ability to do well in school. Access to mental health services has been shown to improve attendance and academic performance, lower rates of suspension, as well as increase rates of graduation.
School is often the place where you spend most of your time. For this reason, school staff like teachers are the first to notice when you are struggling or may be in need of additional support. School counselors, social workers, school psychologists, and school nurses can support you to address any challenges you might be experiencing that creates barriers to your well-being and success.
What kind of mental health supports can I receive at school?
Mental health support at school can include a broad range of services including crisis intervention, counseling, individual or group therapy, assessments, and referrals to community-based organizations. School staff like school counselors, social workers, school psychologists, and school nurses can provide these types of supports. Schools also partner with community-based providers to support the mental health of students.
Who can provide mental health support at my school?
Under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), school-based mental health (SBMH) providers include school counselors, school social workers, and school psychologists. School counselors provide academic counseling along with social emotional support when you are struggling. Students have the right to request a meeting with their counselor through office referrals or by visiting the counseling office. However, California school counselors have some of the highest caseloads in the country, and this can contribute to a delayed response. School counselors have training and experience in creating safe learning environments, improving school climates (i.e., bullying on campus), and building positive relationships with students, teachers, and parents.
School social workers, like counselors, can also facilitate prevention and intervention programs on issues like substance abuse, bullying, anger management, and more. Depending on your school, some social workers provide short-term counseling for students who are in crisis, chronically absent, feeling anxious or depressed, engaging in self-harm, or having thoughts of suicide. School social workers can also provide support to you or your family to seek outside referrals that you may need related to food security, housing, and healthcare.
School psychologists are trained to work with all students, including students with disabilities and behavioral needs, while also supporting all students. School psychologists collaborate with other school staff to address concerns related to your learning, behavior, or development. School psychologists also conduct assessments and provide interventions for students specifically those students with special education needs. School psychologists are also trained to and can provide mental health support/services for all students including counseling regarding many challenges such as depression, anxiety, students engaging in self-harm, and those having thoughts of suicide, as well as trauma-related behaviors.
School nurses can also provide support regarding your physical and mental health. For example, school nurses can conduct screenings or provide referrals to community healthcare providers. Problems with physical health are often linked to a mental health issue.
Schools can also have partnerships with community-based mental health providers to serve students. More California schools are also starting to offer wellness centers and clinics on school campuses.
The types of supports you can receive at school will vary depending on what your school district or school provides you. Be sure to check in with someone at your school to learn what you have access to.
How can I find out about mental health supports at my school?
In California, you are guaranteed the right to attend a school that is safe, secure, and peaceful. To ensure this, public and charter schools are required to develop and maintain Comprehensive School Safety Plans (CSSPs). As a part of these safety plans, schools may have guidelines that focus on mental health and intervention services. It is important to ask a school staff member about your school’s safety plan to find out more about the support that is available to you.
Note that you can also seek mental health support outside of school through your health insurance. For example, if you are under 21 years of age and have full-scope Medi-Cal, then you are eligible for Early and Periodic Screening, Diagnosis, and Treatment (EPSDT) benefits. EPSDT provides screening and services for both physical (e.g., hearing, vision, dental) and mental health needs. Mental health services through EPSDT can include therapeutic behavioral services (TBS) and in-home behavioral services (IHBS).
Should I be learning about mental health in school?
Maybe. As of 2022, the law related to health education has been expanded to include mental health instruction for middle school and high school students. Because of this law, if your middle or high school teaches health classes, then your school must also teach you about topics like mental health wellness, identifying signs and symptoms of mental health challenges (e.g. anxiety, depression, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder), and services that can help you manage your mental health. Education on these topics must be provided in a way that is accurate, unbiased, appropriate, and inclusive to all students regardless of their race, gender, or sexual orientation. If you are a student with a disability or an English learner, your school must provide you with this education in a way that is accessible to you.
Note that the California Department of Education will be working on its plan to implement the new requirements under this law through 2024.
Does my school have to provide me with mental health or behavioral health supports?
Maybe. If you are a student with a disability and have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) that includes mental or behavioral health supports, then your school must provide you with the behavioral supports and interventions outlined in your IEP.
If you have an IEP, then your school can assess you for two primary IEP classifications that are related to mental health. One of these is “Emotional Disturbance” (ED), which is broadly defined and does not require a mental health diagnosis though your school should evaluate, or assess, you for it. For example, repeatedly feeling unhappy or depressed to the extent that it “adversely” affects your academic performance can be considered an emotional disturbance. A professional evaluation must occur first for students to be considered as a student with ED. An adverse effect means your disability makes it more difficult for you to learn in school. Likewise, difficulty maintaining good relationships with your peers or teachers may also qualify you for this type of disability category. The second IEP classification is more general and categorized as an “Other Health Impairment” (“OHI”). This could include Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), which can make it more difficult to pay attention.
If you have an IEP based on an ED or OHI classification, then you may qualify for counseling, psychological and/or social work services. This can include individual or group counseling for yourself and in some case your parent(s).
If you do not have an IEP, you may still be eligible for mental health services through a Section 504 plan. Unlike an IEP, a Section 504 plan does not require that you have a specific disability or diagnosis. Section 504 plans are intended to provide students with disabilities appropriate and individualized education services. A qualifying disability for a 504 plan includes a physical or mental impairment that makes it difficult to do “major life activities” like walking, seeing, hearing, breathing or learning. Physical impairments that can also limit your ability to do “major life activities” may include depression, anxiety, asthma, or a heart condition.
If you do not have an IEP or 504 plan, your parent or guardian can request that your school conduct an evaluation or assessment to determine whether you have a disability and need special education services. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), schools are required to identify, locate and evaluate all students with disabilities including those students who are suspected of having a disability (also known as the “Child Find” requirement).
For more information about your rights as a student with a disability, click here to check out our know your rights information for students with disabilities or visit https://www.myschoolmyrights.com/student-disability-rights/.
Do I need parental consent to access mental health services?
You do not need parental consent to access mental health servicesso long as you are 12 years of age or older and the mental health professional you speak to determines that you are mature enough to participate in treatment or counseling. Note that whether you are mature “enough” is up to the discretion and judgment of the mental health professional. Though, if you can, and it is safe to do so, we encourage you to talk to your parent, guardian, or other trusted adult for additional support.
If a school needs to bill mental health services through Medi-Cal for a student, a parent or guardian will be required to complete and sign a form. In general, mental health professionals are required to involve a parent or guardian in your mental health treatment unless involving them would be inappropriate. For example, if you are being abused by a parent or guardian. In addition to this, parental consent is not required when a mental health professional (e.g. therapist, school psychologist, counselor, social worker) determines that without treatment or counseling you may be a “danger” to yourself or others. This means that you may physically harm yourself or someone else which could be based on a number of reasons like prior attempts to end your own life. Note that consent to treatment does not include consent to convulsive therapy, psychosurgery, or psychotropic drugs.
For more information about consent for mental health services, check out the National Center for Youth Law’s FAQ about consent here. To learn more about consent for medical services click here to check out our know your rights information for student health rights.
Does mental health support also include substance abuse treatment?
It depends. If your school district offers substance abuse services, you also have the right to consent to drug or alcohol treatment without needing anyone else’s permission. Talk to a trusted adult at your school to learn if your school district offers substance abuse services. Note that you can also seek substance abuse treatment outside of school through county funded programs. In California, every county has a Mental Health Plan (MHP) that includes the mental health and substance abuse services available to individuals with Medi-Cal insurance. For more information on your county’s MHP, check out the California’s Department of Health Care Services website here.
Will my parent or guardian find out if I am receiving mental health services or substance abuse treatment?
Generally no, but there are exceptions. A mental health provider can share your medical information with a parent or guardian if they have your signed consent or authorization. However, parents have the right to request documents from a school that relate to their child’s education, and notes regarding mental health can be included in this. Other exceptions include when you are considered a “danger” to yourself or others. In those instances, your parent or guardian may have to be contacted for your own safety as well as your county’s crisis care unit for further evaluation. Written authorization to share information with a parent or guardian may also not be required if you are unable to consent because of a mental or physical condition.
Keep in mind that your parent or guardian may learn you are receiving mental health services if you have an IEP. As a part of the IEP process, your school will include your parent or guardian in meetings regarding any evaluations or assessments conducted, academic or behavioral goals, and “related services” that will be in place to meet your needs. These services can include counseling or behavior therapy.
If I talk to a school-based mental health provider about something meaningful and sensitive to me, can they keep our discussions confidential?
Generally, yes, but there are exceptions. If you are 12 years of age or older and share information with your school counselor, for example, that is of a “personal nature” it is considered confidential. Information of a “personal nature” typically does not relate to academic or career counseling. Federal and state laws also protect your privacy and the personal information you share with school-based mental health providers (e.g., school counselor, social worker, or school psychologist) or nurses. For more information about confidentiality, check out the National Center for Youth Law’s chart on minor consent and confidentiality laws here.
All school personnel including school-based mental health (“SBMH”) providers and school nurses are mandated reporters which means that they are required by law to share confidential information in specific circumstances. One example is if the school staff person suspects that you or someone else is being abused or neglected at home. In those instances, the individual must report the abuse to local law enforcement (such as the police or sheriff’s department) or a county child welfare agency, often referred to as Child Protective Services (CPS). Either one of these agencies will then decide whether they need to investigate the concerns reported.
Another exception is if your school counselor reasonably believes that sharing your confidential information is necessary because there is a “clear and present” danger. This can be a danger to yourself or others like your peers or a teacher.
Under these circumstances, a SBMH provider school counselor may request assistance from other school staff to conduct a risk assessment if, for example, you expressed having suicidal or homicidal or thoughts. A SBMH provider may also need to contact trained professionals who can determine whether you should be hospitalized for further evaluation and treatment. Hospitalization can be voluntary or involuntary (meaning that it is not your choice).
Note that in some counties the professionals who make the decision about whether hospitalization is necessary are police officers. You or your parent/guardian can seek voluntary psychiatric services if you contact your local crisis care unit, which is usually through your county’s mental health department. For more information on your county’s crisis care unit, check out the California’s Department of Health Care Services website here.
Also keep in mind that a SBMH provider may conduct a suicide risk assessment based on searches you have made online or based on what you wrote in messages, emails, or documents. For example, schools may monitor your online activity on school-issued devices like laptops or through school-issued online accounts to surveil your messages, files, and emails. This surveillance technology will flag keywords you use, including terms related to bullying, self-harm, or suicide. There are limitations on whether your school can search through your digital life. For more information on your digital privacy, check out https://www.myschoolmyrights.com/cell-phone-privacy/.
If I miss school because of my mental health, is it an excused absence?
Yes. You are expected to attend school daily, but you can be excused under certain situations such as when you are sick or must quarantine. If you miss school to support, improve, or benefit your mental or behavioral health, then this is considered an excused absence. This also means that your school should let you complete any assignments or tests that you missed during your absence.
What kind of policies should my school district or charter school have about mental health?
In California, school districts and charter schools that serve students in kindergarten and grades 1-12 are required to have a policy regarding suicide prevention, intervention, and postvention and regular trainings for all school staff on suicide awareness and prevention. For example, these policies should provide information on how to support those students who have thought about suicide, attempted to end their own life, or been impacted in some way by suicide through the loss a family member or friend. The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) has a suicide prevention policy that can be referenced here, as an example.
What should I do if I am struggling with my mental health because I am being bullied or harassed?
You have the right to feel safe at school. This means that you should not be harassed or bullied because of who you are. So, for example, you should not be bullied or harassed because of your race, immigration status, sexual orientation, or gender. To learn more and find resources related to bullying and harassment, click here to check out our know your rights information or visit https://www.myschoolmyrights.com/harassment-and-bullying. You can reach out to a trusted adult on campus, at home, or in your community to share how bullying has impacted you and find support. Or you can reach out to a hotline that provides mental health support like the ones listed below.
What if I don’t have any money to pay for mental health support at school?
Education and services in California public schools are provided to students free of charge. Many California students also qualify for Medi-Cal to cover additional health costs. Over 60% percent of California students are considered low-income (as measured by eligibility for free or reduced-price school meals) and are eligible for Medi-Cal. School districts receive federal reimbursement funds for some health services provided to Medi-Cal eligible students while they are at school. These funds are reinvested back into the school programs to benefit students and their families.
What if I’m uncomfortable or afraid to talk to a professional about my mental health? What if I feel the counselor/therapist won’t understand me?
Many are afraid to seek mental health support because of the stigma or shame that some people place on it. It is completely normal and acceptable to need mental health or social emotional support. Many people have experienced a traumatic event that they need to heal and recover from. The pandemic has increased social anxiety, depression, suicide, and more among young people. It is okay to not be okay sometimes, and help is available. Communities of color have specific issues with stigma along with unique needs because of their experiences with racism and oppression.
Counselors and therapists are trained to support students from different backgrounds. If they are working in schools, they have specialized training to support students that should increase your comfort.
RESOURCES FOR MORE INFORMATION
- CA’s Youth Crisis Line, Available 24 hours a day, 7 days per week via phone at 1-800-843-5200. For more information click here or visit https://calyouth.org/cycl/
- The Trevor Project, National Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention Lifeline for LGBTQ youth, Available 24 hours a day, 7 days per week via phone at 1-866-488-7386 or by texting “START” to 678-678. For more information click here.
- 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, Available 24 hours a day, 7 days per week by dialing “988.” For more information click here. School Mental Health 101: A Primer for Medi-Cal Managed Care Plans (PDF)
- CA’s Non-Emergency Teen Line, Available 6-10pm PST via phone at 1-800-852-8336 or by texting “TEEN” to 839863. For more information, click here.
- Mental Health Resources for California Youth- https://www.chhs.ca.gov/childrens-mental-health-resources/
- CA Partnership for the Future of Learning, Mental Health and Social Emotional Well-Being Checklist During COVID-19, https://www.publicadvocates.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/final-pdf.pdf (English) and https://www.publicadvocates.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/spanish-language-3-pager.pdf (Spanish)
- Immigrants Rising, Undocu-Immigrant Mental Health Grounding & Self-Care Toolkit, https://immigrantsrising.org/wp-content/uploads/Immigrants-Rising_Undocu-Immigrant-Mental-Health-Grounding-and-Self-Care-Toolkit.pdf
- National Center for Youth Law, School Mental Health 101, https://youthlaw.org/sites/default/files/attachments/2022-03/SchoolMentalHealth101_final%20%281%29.pdf.
- ACLU’s My School, My Rights website for information about student rights on multiple topics, like LGBTQ student rights, rights of students experiencing homelessness, immigrant student rights, and more, www.myschoolmyrights.com