It Takes a Village to Tackle California’s Youth Mental Health Crisis

Columnist Joe Mathews writes about the Gonzales Youth Council, and how its members are dealing with the mental health crisis facing their peers. Photograph by Michelle Slade. Courtesy of the Gonzales Youth Commissioners and Council.

How will California solve the mental health crisis among its youth?

Perhaps by empowering the youth to do the work themselves.

That’s what’s happening in the Salinas Valley, at least in the state’s newest small town, Gonzales (population 8,600).

In early 2020, middle school and high school students—members of the Gonzales Youth Council, a parallel city council for youth—have taken it upon themselves to document the damage caused by the pandemic to their peers. But they didn’t stop there. Using their data, they created a new mental health strategy for the city and its schools and secured the resources to implement it.

In the process, the Gonzales teens produced a model of do-it-yourself pandemic response with such potential that a report describing it was recently published in a peer-reviewed academic journal for school psychologists.

It’s no surprise that this work was done in Gonzales, a working-class miracle of self-governance in California’s lettuce land. It is a center of agriculture, food processing, and manufacturing, with a population that is 90 percent Latino and fairly young for today’s Golden State (with a third of its residents under the age of 18).

Over the past generation, the city has prioritized public involvement and empowerment of its young people in community problem-solving – a strategy known as “The Gonzales Way”. In the process, Gonzales has presented surprising solutions to challenges ranging from economic development to energy independence. Gonzales has been particularly strong on health issues—winning national awards because it found ingenious ways to get clinics and medical professionals to serve its people, and to protect more than 99 percent of its eligible population from COVID-19. Got vaccinated.

It takes a village to tackle the teen mental health crisis  Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

Gonzales Youth Council at work. Photograph by Michelle Slade. Courtesy of the Gonzales Youth Commissioners and Council.

Gonzales Youth Council—an organization elected by students in grades 9 through 12th Graders—first established in 2015—has been a big player in this work because it has real power. The body has written local laws on underage drinking, and has led a police-community relations effort. Its members sit in on job interviews at local schools.

Back in 2019, the Youth Council of Commissioners started talking about a focus on mental health. When the pandemic struck, he accelerated his plans.

The council wanted to start with a comprehensive survey of Gonzales youth. Unable to work in person, they needed to take surveys online—and to do so, they secured funding (from Trinidad and the Lupe Gomez Family Fund, a domestic philanthropy), and sought advice from Gonzales’ own collab, which There was a collaboration in between. City and region colleges to develop solutions to community problems. At the CoLab networking event, the Youth Commissioners met with Cal State Monterey Bay child psychology professor Jennifer Lovell.

“They were already well on their way to creating their own survey,” says Lowell, whose research team then joined with the council. Under the partnership, researchers from the university helped young leaders design the survey, collect anonymous responses, and analyze quantitative and qualitative data. The Youth Council had the final say on the content of the survey and owned all data.

Over the past generation, the city has prioritized public involvement and empowerment of its young people in community problem-solving – a strategy known as ‘The Gonzales Way’.

The council conducted its first mental health survey in late spring 2020, focusing on the question, “How well are young people doing during the COVID-19 crisis?” The survey consisted of 52 questions (multiple-choice, rating-based and open-answer) on the topics of academic coping with loneliness and screen time.

The results showed that the children of Gonzales had significant mental stress. What’s more, two-thirds said they are falling behind academically as they struggle with school closures and unreliable online lessons. Nearly 60 percent of middle and high school students with younger siblings in the survey said they had to help a sibling complete their schoolwork online. And more than half of high school-age respondents gave answers that indicated they suffered from anxiety, depression, or both. The youth in Gonzales also reported that they needed more information about how to deal with these and other mental health problems.

The youth council quickly developed plans to provide that information and support. The council broadcast its own mental health investigation via Instagram. The council also shared hotline numbers, inspirational messages, coping tips and self-care reminders with students, and called for training for youth on how to respond when peers are having mental health issues.

In the fall of 2020, the youth council met with school, city and county officials to advocate for more resources to assist Gonzales youth with their mental health burden. As a result, these local governments pledged to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness and make it easier for students to report mental health challenges.

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

People are paying 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 quarterly journal of the National Association of School Psychologists. school psychology review,

But the youth council is not finished with this work, or satisfied with Gonzales’ mental health. Earlier this year, Young People conducted a follow-up survey to test the impact of the new mental health resources and asked students what else they needed.

The good news: The 2022 survey showed a decrease in the high rates of mental stress, anxiety and depression reported in 2020. For mental health services.

“We’ve made some progress, there’s more talking about mental health in school, but we need to talk about reducing mental health stigma,” said Sherlyn Flores-Magadan, Senior Youth Council Commissioner for Gonzales High School. Is required.” Me. “And we have to provide parents with more information—that’s one of the keys to helping our teens.”

In Gonzales, there’s also talk about new peer-to-peer projects—particularly around tutoring, pedestrian safety, and community gardens. The logic is simple: Who better to help the kids than the kids themselves?

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