Q&A: Meet Melissa Di Scala, Irvine Unified’s new coordinator of mental health


During the last school year, as IUSD was in the process of creating a sweeping new accountability plan, feedback from parents, staff and other stakeholders made it clear that mental health was a high priority.

So IUSD created a brand new position — coordinator of mental health — and tapped Melissa Di Scala for the role.

Di ScalaDi Scala was a natural choice. The former social worker joined IUSD in 2011 as a school psychologist at Creekside High School, and before that she took on similar responsibilities in the Colton Joint Unified School District and the Yucaipa-Calimesa Joint Unified School District.

Along with a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Cal State Fullerton, Di Scala has a master’s degree in educational psychology and an education specialist degree in school psychology from Chapman University. (She’s currently a doctoral candidate at Alliant International University.)

We sat down with Di Scala recently to talk about her new job and the work currently underway to support the mental health needs of more than 30,000 Irvine students.

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NF: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us. For starters, tell us about your new role.

MD: I’m the coordinator of mental health, crisis intervention and 504 plans. (Note: 504 plans are student accommodation plans based on Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and later amended under the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act.)

As far as mental health goes, we’re fortunate to have a vast amount of resources. Now it’s about building on that, identifying any gaps in our service coverage and determining if those gaps can be filled through community partnerships or university partnerships – or deciding if there are options we’ll need additional resources to cover.

That’s been the focus this year, and I’ve developed a mental health collaborative to gather input from different stakeholders to guide our work. I think the best way to go about ensuring a continuum of mental health services for students is to enlist IUSD professionals – our nurses, school counselors, school psychologists and district-level professionals – to take a look at what our needs are so that we can develop recommendations for the board. We’re also working to identify a few parents and students to join our collaborative. Their contributions will be valuable as we move into reviewing group interests and identifying options for meeting those interests.

Another part of your job is crisis-response.

Yes. We partner with the Orange County Department of Education when we have something that’s over and above what we can provide, but we also wanted to put in place a crisis-response team with our own staff. So we got that together, and it’s made up of 29 members, including school counselors, psychologists, nurses and our Project Success staff, which are counseling paraprofessionals at the secondary level. We also have some psychologist interns who have been trained and want to participate as well. Our team is now trained to respond to any traumatic event that affects a large percentage of the population. We are up and running and ready to go.

It sounds like your work, much like instruction, is data-driven.

Absolutely. Along with a needs assessment that was sent our to our principals, psychologists, counselors and nurses, we’re looking at the results of the California Healthy Kids Survey, as well as what our kids are saying. Next we will look at what our parents are reporting.

What needs are we seeing in Irvine?

We’re really seeing issues around anxiety and depression with students, primarily those in the upper elementary grades and the middle and high schools. And we’ve got to figure out how to support those needs because anxiety can take form for any number of reasons. It can be stressors in the home, peer conflicts, movement to a new city, the death of a family member – there are so many reasons behind the responses of anxiety and depression that it’s often hard to pinpoint and say, “This is the trend we’re seeing.”

We’re looking at how we can address these responses within the tiered supports that we currently provide, and what the research indicates is that schools that have implemented Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) – which our schools thankfully have – are really the gold standard of addressing school climate issues and making school a comfortable place. Infusing mental health supports within the PBIS framework takes it a step further. And so our district is really looking at multi-tiered systems of supports: addressing issues at the universal preventative level, moving into a targeted level for students who need more support and then an intensive level for students who need even more support. The goal is to fill that pyramid of supports.

What resources are available for students struggling with mental health issues?

Through the Guidance Resources department, coordinated by Jenna Berumen, we have counseling paraprofessionals that provide a general level of service at all of our school sites. Our counseling paraprofessionals were initially grant-funded, but that grant ended, and now they’re funded partially through the City of Irvine’s Measure BB funds, as well as through the IUSD general fund.​ At all of the elementary school sites, the counseling paraprofessionals follow an evidenced-based curriculum that addresses things like social skills, emotional regulation, stress management and asking for help. At this level it’s about basic coping skills.

Then at the middle and high school levels we have counseling paraprofessionals who follow a looser curriculum where they’re looking at solution-focused strategies. So if a student presents an issue with a peer, a teacher or academic concerns, we’re really looking at all of the issues and solutions to resolve that. If that works for a student, that’s great. And if the student requires more support, then a referral can be made to the Irvine Family Resource Center (IFRC). What’s nice about the IFRC is that we have two licensed professionals there who provide counseling services to students and families as needed. Parenting classes are also offered there for parents who have students with challenging behaviors. The Irvine Family Resource Center is run by Susan Holt, and it really is a wonderful support that we’ve had in place for a number of years.

If a student is struggling with an issue, where should they start?

They can start with their school and ask for the student to participate in group counseling with a counseling paraprofessional. If they require more support, then they can ask for a referral to the Irvine Family Resource Center. We also have information on the IUSD website under “Resources for Parents.” (Click here to access the district’s Guidance Resources webpage.)

How do external factors, such as technology and the economy, impact mental health?

I think as we progress and change as a society, our responses to those changes evolve. The economy affects that as well. When there’s an economic downturn, the stress level elevates. There is such a thing as healthy anxiety. However, when there are too many stressors – an economic downturn, a death in the family, a need to move – that’s a lot for a person to manage. But I think there’s an awareness now at the national, state and local levels to really look at what we are doing to support the needs of our students, and at the same time we’re trying to reduce the stigma of mental illness.

I take it you’re seeing some positive developments in that schools are more focused on addressing mental health concerns?

Yes, and Irvine is really progressive in that respect. They’ve created this position to be a general education position, really looking at the needs of all students rather than only focusing on special education students, as some districts have.

Would you consider addressing mental health issues part a movement to support the whole child?

Yes, and it’s also about eliminating barriers to learning. We’re asking, “What is getting in the way of learning?” Because that’s what we’re ultimately charged with doing – educating children. So if there’s something getting in the way of that, we want to address that the best we can.

Lastly, do you like this work?

Absolutely. It’s definitely a love of mine. Thank you for the interview.