OCDE hires countywide network of mental health coordinators

With funding from the Mental Health Student Services Act, and in partnership with the Orange County Health Care Agency and local school districts, OCDE recently hired seven regional mental health coordinators, creating a countywide network to strengthen mental health procedures and protocols.

Serving a wide-range of mental health needs, the coordinators are each assigned to a region in Orange County and work closely with local school districts to increase access to local mental health organizations.

OCDE Manager of Mental Health and Wellness Care Coordination Mayu Iwatani says that although the grant was written and coordinators were hired prior to the pandemic, the program is even more relevant at this time due to the increase needs of student mental health as a result of isolation, loss and abrupt change, during the past year.

“The full impact of the pandemic on students will take time to understand, but the purpose of this grant and the program is to strengthen partnerships between mental health organizations and local schools and districts in order to increase access to mental health services,” said Iwatani.

Regional Mental Health Coordinators team

OCDE’s seven regional mental health coordinators are each assigned to a region in Orange County and work closely with local school districts to increase access to mental health services.

We sat down with Iwatani to discuss a few of the ways coordinators are helping to strengthen the mental health of children and teenagers across the county.

Care coordination services

For smaller districts that may not have the benefit of a large in-house mental health team, Iwatani says regional mental health care coordinators — or RMHCs — provide care coordination services to work with students and families.

“Our RMHCs are responsible for coordinating, facilitating and integrating mental health services, care and support, tailored to meet the specific needs of individual students and families,” said Iwatani. “This specialized coordination ensures a connection to needed services, case management, and supports the communication between all parties.”

Partnerships between local schools and mental health organizations

The purpose of this vital program is to strengthen mental health partnerships between school districts, Orange County behavioral health services and community based organizations, Iwatani explains.

Coordinators help increase access to mental health services and remove barriers while providing services like technical assistance, consultation, resources and support to enhance and strengthen district mental health systems and services.

Trauma-informed approaches

A critical part of the RMHC’s role is to bridge mental health gaps while promoting a greater understanding of Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, and the importance of trauma-informed care.

Iwatani explains that trauma-informed care is not just a health care approach, but an approach to human relationships. And it can help make a school healthier and more functional, especially after the trauma of the pandemic.

“Children come to school with varying levels of adverse experiences,” Iwatani said. “Educators and professionals like our RMHCs who are trauma-informed and trained to be responsive and compassionate can help to remove barriers that are impacting social, health and academic success.”

To further raise awareness about the importance of this work — and in partnership with CHOC and the American Academy of Pediatrics Orange County — OCDE was named the recipient of an ACEs Aware grant designed to help inform and educate local communities about the importance of screening for ACEs and responding with trauma-informed care.

For additional information about the Mental Health Student Services Act grant and the regions each mental health coordinator serves, visit OCDE’s Educational Services department website.