Mathews: How California can solve its youth mental health crisis

Mathews: How California can solve its youth mental health crisis

How can we better address California’s youth mental health crisis?

By giving young people the means to solve it themselves.

Gonzales (population 8,600) in Monterey County does just that. Since the start of 2020, middle and high school students — members of the Gonzales Youth Council, a parallel city council — have been developing a mental health strategy for their community with such potential that it was recently published in a peer-reviewed journal.

It’s no surprise that this happened in Gonzales, a self-governing wonderland in the Salinas Valley with a working-class population that’s 90 percent Latino and a third under 18. Over the past generation, the city has prioritized public participation and youth empowerment. in community problem solving – a strategy dubbed “The Gonzales Way”. In the process, Gonzales has made dramatic strides in economic development, energy independence and california.html.

The Gonzales Youth Council has real power, which it has used to write local underage drinking laws, help police-community relations efforts, and help with hiring in local schools.

In the fall of 2019, the Youth Council Commissioners—a student-selected group of sixth through tenth graders who used their power to write local ordinances and participate in school recruitment—decided to focus their mental health energies. When the pandemic hit, they accelerated their plans.

The council wanted to start with an extensive online survey of young people in Gonzales. To do this, they sought advice from CoLab, a collaboration between the city and area colleges to solve community problems. Through CoLab, the commissioners met with Cal State Monterey Bay psychology professor Jennifer Lovell, who partnered with the council.

As part of this partnership, university researchers helped the young leaders design the survey, collect anonymous responses, and analyze the quantitative and qualitative data. The youth council had the final say on the content of the survey and owned all the data.

In late spring 2020, the council conducted its first mental health survey with 52 questions on topics ranging from loneliness to screen time. The results revealed considerable mental stress in the Gonzales children. Two-thirds said they were falling behind academically with schools closing and lessons moving online. Many struggled to care for their younger siblings. And more than half of high school-aged respondents gave answers that indicated they had anxiety, depression, or both. Gonzales’ youth also reported that they needed more information about how to deal with these and other mental health issues.

The Youth Council quickly developed plans to provide this information and assistance. The council released its own mental health checkups via Instagram. The council also shared helplines, inspirational messages, coping tips and self-care reminders with students, and called for training for young people on how to react when their peers are in trouble. of mental health.

In the fall of 2020, the youth council met with school, city, and county officials to advocate for more resources to help Gonzales’ children deal with their mental health issues. As a result, these local governments have decided to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness and make it easier for students to report mental health issues.

The meetings also produced a new financial commitment. In January 2021, the city and school district agreed to share the cost of hiring a licensed clinical social worker to support student mental health.

People pay attention to Gonzales’ work – as an example of what scholars call youth-led participatory action research. Three youth council commissioners worked with Lovell’s team to write the peer-reviewed study in the National Association of School Psychologists’ quarterly journal, School Psychology Review.

But the youth council isn’t done with that job, nor satisfied with Gonzales’ sanity. Earlier this year, young people conducted a follow-up survey to test the impact of new mental health resources and asked students what else they needed.

The good news: The 2022 survey found a decrease in the high rates of mental stress, anxiety and depression reported in 2020. But students reported continued difficulties balancing the burden of homework, family and work. managing their own health, and said they wanted better access to mental health services.

“We have made some progress. There’s more talk about mental health in school, but we need to keep talking about reducing the stigma of mental health,” youth council commissioner Sherlyn Flores-Magadan, a senior at Gonzales High, told me. “And we need to provide more information to parents – it’s one of the keys to helping our teenagers.”

At Gonzales, we are also talking about new projects between peers, especially around tutoring. The logic is simple: who better to help children than the children themselves?

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.

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