Tucked away in a cozy office at 544 Valley Way, CASSY (Counseling and Support Services for Youth) makes its headquarters in Milpitas, but is spreading invaluable mental health services to youth around Santa Clara County and parts of San Mateo County.
Its Executive Director is Christy Hayes (featured in the photo above), who started working there in 2015. Previously, Hayes had a career as an educator, working with very young children in the course of their social-emotional development. Upon seeking to take her work to the next level, Hayes found CASSY to be a natural fit:
“Back in the 70s and 80s, there was a lot of recognition around the use of substances with teens,” Hayes explained. “[It] has evolved in the last couple of years, with the prevalence of depression and academic stress and anxiety within our community. There’s a recognition that we have to meet the kids where they are. And that there is a huge academic impact if students don’t have their social-emotional needs met. So that’s how our partnership started.”
She was referring to CASSY’s partnership with the City of Milpitas, which is marked by noteworthy ambition, nearly covering all K-12 students across the entire Milpitas Unified School District (MUSD).
Per CASSY’s website: “At these schools, we provide the following services: Individual, Group & Family Therapy, Crisis Intervention & Treatment, Suicide & Depression Awareness Campaigns, Staff Support & Training, Parent Consultation, Community Outreach.”
At the City Council level, Milpitas’ partnership with CASSY was strongly championed by Councilmember Bob Nuñez. As of now, CASSY has offices and an active staff presence in 56 Bay Area schools, boasting 72 employees, 6 of whom work at the main location. Milpitas High School alone has 3 CASSY staff members onsite providing services. Whereas its presence initiated in our city’s high schools, in the past couple years CASSY has expanded to our middle and elementary schools, as well.
Students approach CASSY with a wide range of concerns, from interpersonal issues with other students to suicidal thoughts/ideation. Hayes highlighted the California-wide sense of pressure among students to be competitive, pointing out that University of California schools only accept 10% of eligible students statewide. Beyond private options, the UC schools constitute the top rung of colleges, and students are known to apply intense pressure to themselves to get in at them:
“There’s a desire to achieve, to be able to get into the best school that you can, so you can have the best opportunity in your future,” Hayes explained.
She went on to share that, consistent with national averages, 1 in 5 California students experience suicidal ideation. In 1 in 6 cases, the student seriously considers attempting suicide.
Curbing these statistics’ potential to be alarming, Hayes added, “Most do not end up in the hospital…There’s a very low prevalence of students who end up actually attempting.”
Positive outcomes are achieved through safety planning, as well as communicating substantively with at-risk students, their parents, and their teachers. Meanwhile, academic stress is only one specific source of mental health issues among youth. Depression, anxiety, peer conflicts, and home conflicts are also commonly encountered at CASSY.
In the case of suicidal students, CASSY’s first move, when engaging with them, is finding each student help. They make sure to provide the number to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s phone and text hotline (see below). Oftentimes, hotline representatives gather GPS coordinates from students who are thinking about suicide, so as to be able to locate them and facilitate intervention in the event of an emergency.
In addition, a methodology called Question Persuade Refer (QPR) is taught for free to Santa Clara County parents and teens (over 18). CASSY highly recommends gaining knowledge in QPR, which is not in and of itself a form of counseling or treatment, but a practice more akin to CPR, which can go a long way in terms of saving lives. The core precepts of QPR are to Question someone who may be contemplating suicide, Persuade that individual to seek help, and Refer that individual someplace where help can be provided. See the QPR website here:
Young people often find their way to CASSY on their own, or are referred by friends, teachers, and/or administrators. Initially, CASSY will communicate with kids in 1 to 3 assessment sessions, whereby they gather info on their history, background, and experiences, thus putting together a picture of where they are mental health-wise. Next, in many cases, parents and school administrators are welcomed into the conversation for a fuller picture. Then comes a goal-setting process, whereby the information gathered fuels a tangible plan of action.
Overall, CASSY’s mission is to destigmatize mental health services, making it normal and expected for schools to provide social-emotional support to their students. Oftentimes, Hayes shared, people fear approaching the topic of mental illness due to a lack of sufficient language and a deficient sense of expertise:
“It’s scary, it’s putting yourself out there, right? Especially around a heavily stigmatized subject, which is why our work is so broad and so important to us. So we want to make sure we change that narrative, that people can [talk about it].”
She also pointed out, “The most important thing is to not downplay it, right? Because whatever’s happening for that person in that moment is very real for them. And you definitely want to acknowledge that you’re listening and you hear them and that we can seek help together.”
The good news is, whatever people’s limitations, blockages, and/or stigmas around discussing mental illness, young people are notably comfortable having the conversation.
Said Hayes, “I will say that the youth are absolutely engaging in it.”
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, do not hesitate to call OR text the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Help is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.