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How best to improve the mental health of young people? By letting them figure it out

The Fresno Bee - 11/18/2022

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

By empowering young people to solve it themselves.

Gonzales, a farming town of 8,600 in the Salinas Valley, is doing just that. Since early 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 Salinas Valley marvel of self-governance, with a working-class population that is 90 percent Latino and one-third under age 18. Over the past generation, the town has prioritized public participation and youth empowerment in community problem-solving — a strategy dubbed “The Gonzales Way”. In the process, Gonzales has made eye-popping advances in economic development, energy independence, and youth programs.

Gonzales’ Youth Council has real power, which it has used to write local laws on underage drinking, assist police-community relations, and participate in hiring at local schools.

In the fall of 2019, commissioners on the youth council — a student-selected body of sixth to 12th graders — resolved to focus their energies on mental health. When the pandemic hit, they accelerated their plans.

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

Under the partnership, university researchers helped the youth leaders design the survey, gather anonymous responses, and analyze the quantitative and qualitative data. The youth council had final say on the survey’s contents and owned all the data.

In late spring 2020, the council conducted its first mental health survey with 52 questions on subjects from loneliness to screen time. The results revealed considerable mental stress among Gonzales’ kids. Two-thirds said they were falling behind academically with schools closed and lessons moved online. Many were struggling to care for younger siblings. And more than half of high school-age respondents gave answers that indicated they were suffering anxiety, depression, or both. Gonzales’ young people also reported that they needed more information about how to handle these and other mental health problems.

The Youth Council swiftly developed plans to provide that information and assistance. The council circulated 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 in how to respond when peers are having mental health issues.

In fall 2020, the Youth Council met with school, city, and county officials to argue for more resources to assist Gonzales kids with their mental health burdens. As a result, these local governments resolved to reduce the stigma around mental illness and to 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 a licensed clinical social worker to support student mental health.

People are paying attention to the 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 finished with this work, or satisfied the mental health of Gonzales. 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 need.

The good news: The 2022 survey revealed decreases in the high rates of mental stress, anxiety, and depression reported in 2020. But students reported continuing struggles balancing the burdens of homework, family, and managing their own health, and said they wanted better access to mental health services.

“We’ve had a bit of progress, mental health is being talked about more at school, but we need to keep talking about reducing the stigmas of mental health,” youth council commissioner Sherlyn Flores-Magadan, a Gonzales High senior, told me. “And we have to provide more information to parents — that’s one of the keys for helping our teens.”

In Gonzales, there is also talk of new peer-to-peer projects, especially around tutoring. The logic is straightforward: Who better to help kids than kids themselves?

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