Family Service Agency

By Zach Rosen   |   December 24, 2020
The Youth Mental Health First Aid course provides a certification in helping adolescents with mental health issues

Founded in 1899, the Family Service Agency (FSA) has been a continual source of support in the community for over a century. Over the years they have helped individuals and families with counseling, mental health programs, and more concrete support of basic needs like access to transportation and schools. Of course the pandemic has brought its own challenges that FSA has adapted to while still maintaining their other benefits to the community. Marianne McCarthy, the communications and marketing manager of FSA, said “during COVID we have been helping people get connected to unemployment insurance. We’ve been working with United Way in the Joint Response Effort, in processing over three thousand applications for direct support and rental insurance.” Another important area they’ve identified during this time is helping with mental health. Between fear of the virus or just the months spent in social distancing, this year has come with its stresses and the anxiety of living with the unfamiliar. FSA has offered a range of mental health programs to students, families, and elders of all ages, and they wanted to create programs that can continue to support these communities. During the pandemic they have launched a big campaign aimed towards seniors and caregivers. Many older individuals are not getting the family visits they’re used to and just need reassurance that this is only temporary and they will see their family again, or simply just someone to speak with.

Gabriela Dodson is the holistic defense program manager and helps instruct several of the FSA’s mental health courses

In schools, the Zoom classroom has also come with its own challenges. Students may be having difficulty learning in a digital platform, missing after school programs, and feeling alone in the months of social isolation. Normally teachers and administrators are able to observe in the classroom the emotional cues of students who are at-risk or dealing with such mental health issues as anxiety and depression. They are able to pick up on these subtle signs through normal interpersonal interactions but these do not always translate over a computer screen. It can also just be hard for a teacher to keep an eye on 20 faces on the screen at once. Parents are also being faced with the new challenge of being there in the digital classroom for their children and it is a new role that some may find difficult. FSA has noticed that they are not getting as many student referrals to their school based counseling program from teachers, parents, and administrators, and if anything, these services are even more needed during these times. To address this, they have launched several digital programs to meet these needs.

This year they launched a digital version of their Mental Health First Aid program, which has been around since 2001. The new Youth Mental Health First Aid course is offered in both English and Spanish and is aimed towards not just teachers but parents, youth workers, associated nonprofits, and any member of the community who interacts with youth or is interested in knowing more about addressing the mental health needs of students. The Mental Health First Aid program equips participants with the tools needed to identify mental health issues and substance abuse problems in adolescents and direct them towards the care required to address these concerns. The program consists of a two-hour online course that attendees can do at their own pace and then an online live seminar that lasts over four hours at the end of which they receive a certification. Gabriela Dodson, a licensed clinical social worker and instructor in several of the FSA programs, compares it to CPR, the more people that know it, the more people there are that can help when a need for it arises.

Parenting in a Pandemic is aimed towards helping parents raise their family during these challenging times

The FSA has also wanted to create a program that can help families with mental health during these times. For many parents, the quarantine has brought around such concerns as job, food, and financial insecurity, let alone the added stress of having their children at home all day. All of these factors happening at once means parents may have warning signs and risks going unnoticed in their children. In conjunction with the Santa Barbara Unified School District, the FSA has co-produced a five-part series, “Parenting in a Pandemic,” that helps teach parents about warning signs in their children, sources of help if there is an issue, and gives practical advice for raising a family during these times. Each class focuses on different issues like anxiety and depression that may be affecting students. All of the courses go up on the FSA YouTube page ( in both English and Spanish. Each of the courses is about an hour long and ends with a Q&A where parents can address specific concerns. The quarantine is a new experience for all of us, with each person responding to it differently, and it can be reassuring to ask a professional whether their child’s behavior is a normal response to what is happening or if it is a sign of something deeper going on underneath.

As Gabriela notes, “none of us have ever parented in this time before. None of us have ever lived through this so we’re all trying to figure this out, but if we can all do it together as a community, then that will be great.” 

Visit to sign up for a Mental Health First Aid course or one of their parenting workshops. Donations to help support their mental health programs can also be made at


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