Q&A with UTLA member Guisela Gutierrez, a mental health consultant with LAUSD, on the demands of the job, the needs of our students, and the promise of the Beyond Recovery platform.

Can you describe what your role entails? Broadly, what does your day-to-day look like? 

As a mental health consultant within the district, I provide consultation for mental health and behavioral issues in students and crisis response and consultation for PSWs and school site crisis teams. A key aspect of my work is building capacity for our teachers, staff, and parents by providing them with education and training. My assignment covers 20 schools across the MacArthur Park and Historic Central Community of Schools.

There really is no standard “day- to-day” for mental health professionals within LAUSD. On any given day I can be visiting school sites, doing consultations, as well as meeting/consulting with other departments and colleagues to access additional support for some of our Tier 3 cases in our schools.

Crisis doesn’t announce itself, and so responding on the ground for crisis support takes precedence over everything else. This is why a big part of my work has consisted of building preventative and efficient crisis team structures and the professional development for our school stakeholders to not only respond but mitigate the heightened needs we are seeing across our district 


What does it look like to be a mental health services provider within LAUSD?  

We are dramatically overworked, underpaid, and underappreciated by the district. As PSWs and mental health professionals, we constantly feel that we are not doing enough, but in reality, it’s the system itself that is not doing enough for us and our students. We are all trying to outdo ourselves, desperately trying to fill gaps in a system that is demanding more and more from us. 

Mental health was obviously an issue before the pandemic, but since the onset of COVID-19, the needs have dramatically increased. Our students are living through a mental health crisis, and schools are trying to prioritize mental health support, but we are understaffed. It’s not that there is a lack of social workers in the world. They aren’t coming to LAUSD because they know we are underpaid for ever increasing workloads.

As caregivers, we absorb a lot of compassion fatigue that historically was thought to only be experienced by emergency responders. This can be experienced by all whose professions involve a caregiver role. Managing that is a big part of being a mental health worker within LAUSD due to the enormous amount of vicarious trauma that we are exposed to. According to a survey administered by PSW UTLA Chapter chairs, 86% of our Psychiatric Social Workers experienced compassion fatigue and 64% seeked medical attention due to work related stress. We have a crisis on the horizon.

According to the NASW, the ideal ratio is 1 social worker per 250 in schools. In some of our schools right now they have 4 times the number of students. That’s not taking into account there are other factors and unique needs that can make some schools present higher needs and require additional support. PSWs are working with what they have, trying to be creative and pulling on different resources but it is still not enough. Overworking mental health professionals will not solve for the dramatic lack of systemic supports and investment.  

As PSWs and mental health professionals, we constantly feel that we are not doing enough, but in reality, it’s the system itself that is not doing enough for us and our students.

—Guisela Gutierrez

What kind of issues are your students experiencing? 

There has been a significant increase in depression, anxiety, and manifestations of trauma amongst our students. This looks like a lot of interpersonal issues and behavioral issues in the classroom and an increase in school violence incidents. We have also been seeing an increase in suicidal ideation and self-injury as well. Amongst many other things, this has resulted in a higher rate of absenteeism and influx of mental health demands from PSW’s and mental health providers. 

How do experiences outside of school and students’ mental well-being affect academic success?  

Our students and LAUSD families are hurting. In the schools I work with, we are dealing with a host of environmental and socioeconomic factors. We have students experiencing poverty, homelessness, familial discord, an increase in child abuse and access to drugs and alcohol. We have a lot of unaccompanied minors from other countries that are having to navigate this whole new country with little or no support.

Of course, these aren’t present factors in all the communities we serve within LAUSD but all schools are facing great academic challenges. Mental health issues such as the ones discussed, impact schools across the board. Psychiatric Social Workers are faced with the most challenging years of their careers because we do not have the resources and support we need.

Schools are not immune from the issues our communities are experiencing and the district cannot continue placing bandaids.

Mental health counselor

Where would you like to see the district invest the nearly $5 billion they will have sitting in reserves? 

First off, the district underpays staff. Period. From educators to support staff to all the staff that make a school run, we are all underpaid. How can we expect to recruit and retain the best educators and staff if we cannot guarantee to meet their livelihood needs? It’s time for the district to put money behind increasing salaries and embed our proposals of differentials and equitable access of time and resources for school staff.  We need to fill vacancies of educators, PSA’s, PSWs and Nurses in every school site, from early education to primary centers, elementary schools and secondaries. 

LAUSD has great things too; for example we are a leading school mental health model in the nation. Other school districts are trying to replicate the structures we have here in LA, but the main problem is that we do not have the staff needed to reach our fullest potential. 

The district must also invest more in Community Schools ensuring more accessibility of services for our students and families.  

I am a LAUSD alum, and now I am a LAUSD parent as well. We need more teachers and resources for our educators who have to teach students under these extraneous circumstances. I believe in our educators, staff, students, and entire communities. I am a UTLA Chapter Chair because I want to make sure to advocate and have our voices heard, respected, and valued. This is really an unprecedented time for education. Everyone is vital in the school community, and we are not getting the respect that we deserve.  With more investment from the district, we can accomplish even greater things. 

This is really an unprecedented time for education. Everyone is vital in the school community, and we are not getting the respect that we deserve.  With more investment from the district, we can accomplish even greater things. 

—Guisela Gutierrez

Why is the Beyond Recovery Platform needed to improve the state of mental health in LAUSD?  

The Beyond Recovery Platform recognizes the shift our world took after the beginning of the pandemic and how it impacted our communities and district as a whole. It advocates for addressing our concerns in a comprehensive way.  

The platform was developed democratically by the members and it addresses what we are facing as PSWs and mental health workers. After the 2019 strike, we saw some positive things come out of it, but we did not feel like it was very representative of all support staff like Psychiatric Social Workers. Beyond Recovery really addresses this and allows me to maintain the hope.

For mental health providers it calls for more personnel, fair ratios/caseloads, and even addresses unrelated tasks that are assigned to PSWs outside their scope of work so that we can give more time to meet the mental health needs that our students present in order for them to learn. It also supports caring for those who are at the forefront of support services to have protected time to document during the week to fulfill our legal and ethical documentation requirements that currently spill over to working from home and impacting our personal lives. 

Being a mental health professional in LAUSD is no longer sustainable. The caseloads and work keep increasing, with no subsequent resources to counteract those demands. We are all invested and dedicated to our professions and our students, but working in these depleted conditions is spreading us thin. The infrastructures are there, but without support, this is not sustainable. You can have all the protocols and realignments you want, but if you do not have the people to do the work, then how are you going to successfully educate and care for the future of our world? 

Now is the time for the district to invest, something just has to give. Beyond Recovery is a strong beginning to institute an equitable system that sustains and expands supports for the people in the trenches. Now is the time to demand LAUSD to invest in us.