How will California ever solve its young people’s mental health crisis?
Perhaps by empowering young people to do the work themselves.
At least that’s what’s happening in the state’s most innovative small town, Gonzales (population 8,600), in the Salinas Valley, southeast of Salinas.
As of early 2020, middle and high school students — members of the Gonzales Youth Council, a parallel city council for young people — have taken the lead to document the damage the pandemic has done 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 doing so, Gonzales’ teens offered a model for a 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 marvel of self-government in California’s lettuce country. It’s a center of agriculture, food processing, and manufacturing, with a population that’s 90 percent Latino and fairly young for today’s Golden State (with a third of residents under the age of 18).
For the past generation, the city has prioritized public participation and empowering its young people in solving community issues — a strategy it’s dubbed “The Gonzales Way.” In the process, Gonzales has developed stunning solutions to challenges ranging from economic development to energy independence. Gonzales was particularly strong on health issues — winning national awards for finding ingenious ways to get clinics and healthcare professionals to serve its people and vaccinate more than 99 percent of its eligible population against COVID.
Gonzales’ Youth Council – a panel selected by students from ninth through twelfth gradersth Graders, which was first established in 2015 – has been a key player in this work because it has real power. The body drafted local underage drinking laws and managed a police-community relationship. Its members attend job interviews at local schools.
As early as the fall of 2019, youth council officers began talking about focusing on mental health next. When the pandemic struck, they accelerated their plans.
The council wanted to begin a comprehensive survey of Gonzales’ youth. Unable to work in person, they had to conduct the survey online — and to accomplish this, they secured funding (from the Trinidad & Lupe Gomez Family Fund, a local philanthropy) and sought advice from Gonzales’ own CoLab, a collaboration between the city and district colleges to develop solutions to community problems. At a CoLab networking event, the young commissioners met Jennifer Lovell, a professor of child psychology at Cal State Monterey Bay.
“They were already on the way to creating their own survey,” says Lovell, whose research team then joined forces 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.
The Council conducted its first mental health survey in late spring 2020, which focused on the question, “How are youth doing during the COVID-19 crisis?” The survey contained 52 questions (multiple-choice, assessment-based and open-ended response) on topics ranging from loneliness and screen time to academic coping.
The results showed significant psychological distress in Gonzales’ children. It wasn’t just that two-thirds said they were falling behind academically as they struggled with school closures and unreliable online classes. About 60 percent of surveyed middle and high school students with younger siblings said they had to help their brothers and sisters do their homework online. 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.
A helping hand:The Salinas Valley town that puts kids first
In the fall of 2020, the youth council met with school, city, and county officials to advocate for more resources to support the youth of Gonzales with their mental health struggles. 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.
The meetings also resulted in 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 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 for the quarterly journal of the National Association of School Psychologists. Review of school psychology.
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,” said youth council commissioner Sherlyn Flores-Magadan, a student at Gonzales High School me. “And we need to provide more information to parents — that’s one of the keys to helping our teenagers.”
There is also talk of new peer-to-peer projects in Gonzales – particularly in the areas of tutoring, pedestrian protection and community gardens. The logic is simple: who better to help children than the children themselves?