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California state Sen. Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica) discussed student mental health and local resources with the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District community in a Zoom town hall meeting on Wednesday.

Student mental health has become a key concern in California amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Student mental health needs reached “a crisis level” in 2020 and 2021, according to a recent study by the American Civil Liberties Union California Action organization.

Allen and a panel of mental health specialists gave advice to parents and reviewed existing resources for struggling Los Angeles County students. The meeting’s panelists included mental health leaders from the Santa Monica district, the Los Angeles Unified School District and the Torrance Unified School District.

All panel participants agreed the current statewide and local emphasis on student mental health was long overdue.

“Many of these issues predate COVID. Quite frankly, for too long we’ve failed to invest in our children’s emotional well-being,” Allen said.

Find out what’s happening in Santa Monicawith free, real-time updates from Patch.

Santa Monica-Malibu district students experienced high rates of anxiety and depression well before the pandemic started, according to Shuli Lotan, mental health counseling coordinator for the district. Behaviors related to depression and anxiety have spiked since the pandemic started, she added.

Parents and teachers have seen this play out in a variety of ways, including a lack of motivation, separation anxiety, avoidance of school-related responsibilities and self-esteem issues.

“A lot of students are talking about how hard it is to feel engaged and motivated,” Lotan said.

Lotan noted the district has seen a sharp increase in eating disorders among students. Students’ increased reliance on technology has made them more vulnerable to social anxiety and self-esteem issues related to social media, she said.

The district has used federal COVID-19 relief funds to improve a number of mental health programs, including specific counseling groups for students struggling with eating disorders and grief and loss, as well as for LGBTQ students, Lotan said.

Outside the district, students can access supp

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