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LA County to Provide Free Virtual Therapy for 1.3M Students

An intergovernmental collaboration will grant all 80 school districts in Los Angeles County free access to Hazel Health’s virtual mental health program, including one-on-one therapy sessions.

Debra Duardo
Dr. Debra Duardo, LA County Superintendent of Schools, speaks to the media during a press conference at Benjamin O. Davis Middle School in Compton on Thursday, Feb. 2, 2023. The announcement was for a historic partnership, bringing the Los Angeles County Office of Education (LACOE), L.A. Care Health Plan, Health Net and the L.A. County Department of Mental Health (LACDMH) together, to offer access to mental health services for L.A. County's 1.3 million K-12 public school students.
Brittany Murray/Press-Telegram/TNS
(TNS) — All 1.3 million K-12 public school students in Los Angeles County will soon have access to free virtual therapy sessions in a new effort to tackle the youth mental health crisis head on.

The program is a collaboration between the Los Angeles County Office of Education (LACOE), L.A. Care Health Plan, Health Net, Hazel Health, the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health and school districts across the county.

Hazel Health will serve as the telehealth provider, and offer free one-on-one therapy sessions, in an effort to augment services already provided by social workers and counselors on campus to make mental health care as accessible as possible.

Michael Brodsky, L.A. Care senior medical director, said at a Thursday, Feb. 2 press conference at Benjamin O. Davis Middle School in Compton, that rates of depression, anxiety, drug use and alcohol use already were on the rise among L.A.’s youth prior to the pandemic. But then, the stress and isolation caused by COVID, coupled with increased attention to structural racism, only served to exacerbate the problem.

“This has been a very tough set of years for our students,” said Brodsky.

Health plan providers L.A. Care Health Plan and Health Net have allocated $24 million to support the program for two years thanks to funding from California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Student Behavioral Health Incentive Program.

All 80 school districts in the county will have access to Hazel Health’s virtual mental health program. Several districts, including LAUSD and Compton Unified School District, have already begun implementation.

“With unprecedented levels of trauma and stressors facing our students, the need for timely and effective mental health support has never been greater,” Los Angeles Unified Superintendent Alberto M. Carvalho said in a written statement. “The groundbreaking solutions in virtual care made possible by our partnership with Los Angeles County will dramatically increase our support capacity.”

Hazel Health specializes in providing short-term school-based telehealth therapy and already works with more than 100 school districts nationwide. More than 60 percent of Hazel Health’s therapists identify as people of color and more than 30 percent are bilingual, which aligns with school districts’ commitment to provide culturally relevant care to students.

Students can sign up for care themselves or be referred by a parent or staff member.

Once matched with a therapist, students typically are given six to ten sessions over video chat, said Hazel Health CEO Josh Golomb, at the press conference. They can choose to complete their sessions on campus or from the comfort of their home outside of school hours.

If a student’s needs are not resolved by the end of their virtual sessions, case managers will work with their families to find someone in the community to provide longer-term care, Golomb said.

SaRiya Parker, an eighth-grade student at Benjamin O. Davis Middle School in Compton, said she and a lot of her peers really struggled during the pandemic.

“I feel like it (mental health needs) definitely increased, because we had all this anxiety especially if someone in your family had COVID.”

Parker said her ADD made focusing during remote learning extremely difficult and that the resources available in her school’s student wellness center, such as morning yoga and counseling, have helped her do a lot better in school. Several of her friends also use these services to help out with depression and anxiety, she said.

“I think people should always ask for help,” Parker said. “If you’re suffering in silence it’s like that drowning feeling when you get in the water and can’t get out. Coming to a school psychologist for help is a good way to get out of the water.”

The county recently surveyed all 80 school districts and found that top mental health challenges were addressing stress and anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation, said L.A .County Superintendent Debra Duardo at Thursday’s press conference.

The opportunity to sign up for Hazel Health means that students can get immediate personalized mental health support, which is particularly helpful if mental health providers on campus are overwhelmed with student demand. It also helps schools intervene early before students’ symptoms get worse, Duardo added.

“This historic partnership will bring much-needed mental health support to our students across the county,” Duardo said in a written statement. “This crisis has called us to collective action … We must remove barriers to access and continue our efforts to de-stigmatize help-seeking around mental health.”

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