How California Can Solve Its Adolescent Psychiatry

How can we best address the mental health crisis among young people in California?

By empowering young people to solve it themselves.

Gonzales (population 8,600) in Monterey County is doing just that. Since early 2020, middle and high school students — members of the Gonzales Youth Council, a parallel city council — are developing a mental health strategy for their community with such potential that it’s recently in published in a professional journal.

It’s no surprise that this happened in Gonzales, a Salinas Valley self-government marvel with a working-class population that’s 90% Latino and a third under the age of 18. For the past generation, the city has prioritized public participation and youth empowerment in solving community problems—a strategy dubbed “The Gonzales Way.” In doing so, Gonzales made stunning strides in economic development, energy independence and

The Gonzales Youth Council has real power, having used it to create local underage drinking laws, support police-community relations efforts, and participate in hiring staff at local schools.

Back in the fall of 2019, the commissioners of the Youth Council — a student-selected panel of sixth through twelfth graders who have used their powers to write local ordinances and participate in hiring schools — decided to channel their energies into the psychic focus on health. When the pandemic struck, they accelerated their plans.

The council wanted to begin an extensive online survey of Gonzales youth. To do this, they sought advice from CoLab, a collaboration between the city and the region’s universities to solve municipal problems. Through CoLab, the commissioners met Jennifer Lovell, a psychology professor at Cal State Monterey Bay, who aligned with the council.

As part of the partnership, university researchers helped the youth leaders to 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 52-question mental health survey on topics ranging from loneliness to screen time. The results showed significant psychological distress in Gonzales’ children. Two-thirds said they were falling behind academically as schools closed and classes moved online. Many struggled to care for younger siblings. And more than half of the high school-age respondents gave responses that suggested they suffered from anxiety, depression, or both. The young people of Gonzales also reported that they needed more information on how to deal with these and other mental health problems.

The youth council quickly developed plans to provide this information and support. The council shared its own mental health check-ins via Instagram. The council also shared hotline numbers, inspirational messages, coping tips and self-care reminders with students, and sought training for young people on how to respond when their peers have mental health issues.

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

A new financial commitment also resulted from the meetings. In January 2021, the city and school district agreed to share the cost of hiring a licensed clinical social worker to support students’ mental health.

People are paying attention to the work of Gonzales as an example of what scholars call youth-led participatory action research. Three youth council officers 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 finished with that work or satisfied with Gonzales’ mental health. Earlier this year, the 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 found a decrease in the high rates of mental stress, anxiety, and depression reported in 2020. But students reported ongoing difficulties balancing the burdens of homework, family and managing their own health, and said they wanted better access to mental health services.

“We’ve made a little bit of progress. There’s more talk about mental health in school, but we need to keep talking about reducing the stigma around mental health,” youth council officer Sherlyn Flores-Magadan, a senior at Gonzales High School, told me. “And we need to provide more information to parents — that’s one of the keys to helping our teenagers.”

In Gonzales there is also talk of new peer-to-peer projects – especially around tutoring. The logic is simple: who better to help children than the children themselves?

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

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