How will California ever solve the mental health crisis among its young people?
Perhaps by empowering young people to do the work themselves.
At least that’s what happens in the state’s most innovative small town, Gonzales (pop. 8,600), in the Salinas Valley, just southeast of Salinas.
Beginning in early 2020, middle and high school students — members of the Gonzales Youth Council, a shadow city council for young people — took the lead in documenting the damage the pandemic was doing 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 resources to implement it.
In the process, the Gonzales teens came up with a do-it-yourself pandemic response model with such potential that a report outlining 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 wonder of working-class self-reliance in California’s lettuce lands. It’s a center of agriculture, food processing, and manufacturing, with a population that’s 90 percent Latino and quite young for today’s Golden State (with one-third of residents under the age of 18).
Over the past generation, the city has prioritized public participation and empowerment of its youth in solving community issues – a strategy dubbed “The Gonzales Way”. In the process, Gonzales has produced stunning solutions to challenges from economic development to energy independence. Gonzales has been particularly strong on health issues – winning national awards as he found ingenious ways to get clinics and medical professionals to serve his population and vaccinating over 99% of his COVID-eligible population. .
Gonzales’ Youth Council – a body selected by students in grades nine through 12e graders first created in 2015 – has been an important player in this work because it has real power. The organization drafted local underage drinking laws and led a police-community relations effort. Its members attend job interviews at local schools.
In the fall of 2019, youth council commissioners started talking about focusing on mental health next. When the pandemic hit, they accelerated their plans.
The board wanted to start with a thorough investigation of Gonzales’ youth. Unable to work in person, they had to do the survey online — and to make it happen, they secured funding (from the Trinidad & Lupe Gomez Family Fund, a local philanthropy) and sought advice from Gonzales’ own CoLab, a collaboration between the colleges of the city and the region to find solutions to the problems of the community. At a CoLab networking event, the young commissioners met with Cal State Monterey Bay child psychology professor Jennifer Lovell.
“They were already on the verge of creating their own survey,” says Lovell, whose research team later partnered with the board. 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.
The council conducted its first mental health survey in late spring 2020, focusing on the question: “How are young people doing during the COVID-19 crisis?” The survey included 52 questions (multiple-choice, assessment-based, and open-response) on topics ranging from loneliness and screen time to school adjustment.
The results revealed considerable mental stress in the Gonzales children. It wasn’t just that two-thirds said they were behind academically as they battled school closures and unreliable online lessons. About 60% of middle and high school students with younger siblings surveyed said they had to help their siblings with their homework online. And more than half of high school-aged respondents gave answers that indicated they had anxiety, depression, or both. The Gonzales youth also reported that they needed more information on 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.
A hand:The town in the Salinas Valley where kids come first
In the fall of 2020, the youth council met with school, city, and county officials to advocate for more resources to help Gonzales youth 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 an additional 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 quarterly journal of the National Association of School Psychologists, Journal of School Psychology.
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’ve made a bit of progress, there’s more talk about mental health in school, but we need to keep talking about reducing the stigma of mental health,” said youth council commissioner Sherlyn Flores-Magadan. , a senior from Gonzales High School. me. “And we need to provide more information to parents – it’s one of the keys to helping our teenagers.”
In Gonzales, there is also talk of new peer-to-peer projects, including around tutoring, pedestrian safety and community gardens. The logic is simple: who better to help children than the children themselves?