Faced with rates of adolescent suicide and self-harm that have been among the fastest-rising in the country, the Orange County Department of Education (DOE) has teamed up with a local hospital to boost mental health services on campuses.

The partnership between Children’s Hospital of Orange County and Orange County DOE will include a streamlined connection between the schools and the hospital system and provide “well spaces” on every campus where students can visit counselors, practice yoga and meditation, or just generally relax, according to a report by EdSource.

The youth suicide rate in Orange County increased by 11% from 2010 to 2018, the sharpest increase among the 20 most populous counties in the U.S., according to the Community Suicide Prevention Initiative. Reflecting a national trend, suicide is the second-leading cause of death among adolescents in Orange County. During the pandemic, the suicide rate among teenagers in Orange County remained high after dipping in 2019. Seventeen 10- to 19-year-olds died by suicide in 2020, according to the county health department.

The partnership between county schools and the hospital predates the pandemic but is even more necessary now that students have endured more than a year of isolation and upheaval related to the pandemic. The project formally launched in August 2020 with the opening of two well spaces at middle schools in the Los Alamitos Unified School District. Located in converted classrooms, the well spaces are meant to provide a calming refuge for students to visit throughout the day. Each is furnished with comfortable chairs, desks, snacks, water, plants, books, space for yoga and meditation, and separate offices for private one-on-one counseling.

The spaces are staffed by school counselors, psychologists or social workers who are available for appointments and regular meetings as well as drop-in visits. Eventually, the well spaces will include technology to offer virtual health check-ups and counseling sessions with doctors and nurses at Children’s Hospital.

Middle schools were chosen for the first well spaces because children that age can be especially vulnerable to stress and anxiety, easily become disengaged from school, and experience more serious mental health challenges, issues which have been exacerbated during the pandemic. For example, the adolescent mental health inpatient unit at Children’s Hospital has been full for more than a year.

Along with the well spaces, the partnership includes a streamlined data system between school health staff and Children’s Hospital. The idea is for health care workers at both institutions to have access to a student’s relevant medical records, which could be helpful in addressing conditions such as diabetes, epilepsy and disabilities outlined in special education plans.

In the future, the database may include students’ academic records so doctors in the Children’s Hospital system will be able to see if a child’s grades are falling, a possible indicator of other health issues, such as depression.