faris sabbah jimmy panetta
Santa Cruz County Superintendent of Schools Faris Sabbah (right) speaks with Congressman Jimmy Panetta Feb. 16 at the Santa Cruz County Office of Education. Photo: Todd Guild/The Pajaronian

SANTA CRUZ—In a future envisioned by Santa Cruz County education officials, every comprehensive high school in the county will have a mental health services “hub” where students can access a wide range of counseling and mental health services.

Before that date, the County will launch Wellness Centers in two schools—expected to open in the 2023-24 school year—thanks in part to a $1 million grant recently secured by Congressman Jimmy Panetta.

The Santa Cruz County Office of Education (SCCOE) has not yet identified which schools will receive the first centers.

Panetta visited SCCOE on Feb. 16 to discuss the importance of providing mental health services for young people, who he says are increasingly facing trauma, disruption from the recent pandemic, as well as pressures from social media, rising academic expectations and bullying.

In 2020, Panetta said, officials recorded more than 6,600 deaths by suicide among young people in the state, and added that suicide is the second leading cause of death for people aged 10-24.

Once the centers are open, students will be able to walk in when they feel the need to talk to a counselor, regardless of their insurance status. When appropriate, coordinators would bill Medi-Cal for students that have it, or private insurance—which will be required to pay for the services starting in 2024, SCCOE Superintendent Faris Sabbah said.

Having that access is critical, he said, given that there are 284,000 students coping with depression, with two-thirds of those not receiving treatment.

The issue especially affects LGBTQ youth, who are four times more likely consider suicide, Sabbah said. 

“We see this as a call to action,” he said.

Organizers say that placing the wellness centers on campuses destigmatizes and normalizes the idea of seeking mental health services, which in turn encourages young people to ask for help when they need it, he said.

The centers will also be a resource for teachers—who frequently build strong relationships with their students but are not always equipped to offer mental health support they may need, says SCCOE Climate and Wellness Coordinator Hayley Newman.

More importantly, their prominent location on campus will normalize the idea of mental health care, she said.

“Students can dip their toes into wellness at the level that they feel comfortable with,” she said. “So it’s less of an adult-driven model that we’ve seen before and more student driven.”

Watsonville High School Junior Katalyna López, who sits on the SCCOE’s Youth Mental Health Leadership Council—run with Monarch Services—said that she, like many of her peers, has struggled with her own mental health.

But she says she has also learned the importance of advocating for one’s mental wellbeing.

She says she wants to help build a system where teens are comfortable expressing their concerns and have a “place of acceptance and safety for students who may not receive this at home.” 

“I advocate for increased mental health awareness because I know what it’s like to feel afraid to express your feelings, and not know how a person will react or if they are going to be willing to support you,” she said.

With potential annual staffing costs at each of the eight proposed centers ranging from $80,000 for a Wellness Navigator to $150,000 for a Clinician, the challenge is finding ongoing funding, Sabbah said.  

Organizers are looking into several possible one-time and ongoing funding streams, including conducting a capital campaign. School districts will also help pay for the services from their budgets.

“It’s definitely a community-in-action project, for sure,” Sabbah said. “I think it’s going to be as fundamental as part of a school as the instructional aspect is. It’s that high in our priorities for us.”

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General assignment reporter, covering nearly every beat. I specialize in feature stories, but equally skilled in hard and spot news. Pajaronian/Good Times/Press Banner reporter honored by CSBA. https://pajaronian.com/r-p-reporter-honored-by-csba/


  1. As a school counselor, i searched for low cost programs for students who needed mental help services. Now our county, at long last, has recognized the problem. the mental health of our young people needs to be front and center so they can be educated. and yes, sometimes it means the child is better off NOT living with a genetic parent. I know. I did it twice in past decades. best decision I ever made as a counselor. very proud of former foster son, Guadalupe, and adopted son, David, for overcoming mental health issues and succeeding as adults.

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