When Blue Shield of California launched the BlueSky initiative last year, the goal was to figure out ways to boost mental health support for middle- and high-school students in California. Little did we know that the world – and our schools - would be vastly affected by a global pandemic and national protests about racial justice.
Through it all, BlueSky’s mental health specialists - provided by the nonprofit group Wellness Together – didn’t miss a beat. They maintained a robust schedule of counseling sessions with teens, continuing to offer solace and guidance to hundreds of students, which became even more important after the virus emerged and when Black Lives Matter rallies were taking place from coast to coast.
"It cannot be understated just how important the BlueSky program was when it came to providing crucial mental health services for our students during this very unusual school year,” said Mary Ellen Bayardo, school counselor at Urban Promise Academy in Oakland. “We really needed a team dedicated to handle all these challenges. Our Wellness Together therapist Amy and our friends at Blue Shield delivered every single day, with compassion and understanding.”
Heading into spring Wellness Together was averaging about 430 sessions every month. When the coronavirus emerged in the U.S. and schools began to shutter in the month of April, the number of sessions dropped to 331, but then rebounded in May, with 442 sessions recorded that month. The most common issues and behaviors that brought students into the program included sadness, anxiety, relationship problems, major life changes, and aggression.
“It was clear that students needed an outlet more than ever, but the lack of face-to-face meetings and technology and privacy issues interrupted the program,” said Amanda Lasik, BlueSky program manager. “Once more young people were able to find their footing, the sessions began to ramp up again in earnest.”
Wellness Together specialists rose to the challenge. Wellness Together Assistant Director Jeremiah Aja explains, “Within a couple of days of school closures, our BlueSky team pivoted to virtual meetings. It was important to us that we ensured that California's most vulnerable students would not face these uncertain times alone, and that we would be there when they were ready to re-engage.”
Despite the pandemic, BlueSky still was able to record nearly 3,900 counseling sessions during the school year, 2,400 in San Diego County schools and nearly 1,500 in Alameda County schools.
Aja believes there is a major growth opportunity for the program heading into year number two. “We did pretty well with the roadblocks that were put up this past year,” he said “We plan to hone in on the ideas that worked and believe word of mouth and a year under our belt will prove to be beneficial to the BlueSky program this coming school year.”
Lasik has her sights set on strengthening the relationships with school districts & campuses, increasing the number of program referrals, and developing more group sessions. “These are all doable and will allow us to reach more youth in the years to come.”
The foundation for future success has already been laid, after Blue Shield recently approved $60,000 in new grants to keep Wellness Together specialists working with students through the summer months.
Aja says it’s that kind of dedication that is going to win the day with students. “Often, we, and especially our young people, don't need problems solved as much as they need someone to be with them. The power and impact of ‘with’ during these times have proven to be invaluable.”
For more on the BlueSky program, click here.