How will California ever solve the mental health crisis among its youth?
Perhaps empowering young people to do the work themselves.
That, at least, is what happens in the state’s most innovative small town, Gonzales (pop. 8,600), in the Salinas Valley.
Beginning in early 2020, middle and high school students — members of the Gonzales Youth Council, a parallel city council for young people — have taken the lead in documenting the toll the pandemic was taking on 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 provided resources to implement it.
In the process, the Gonzales teenagers offered 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.
No wonder this work was done in Gonzales, a working-class miracle of self-government in the lettuce lands of California. It is a center of agriculture, food processing and manufacturing, with a population that is 90 percent Latino and quite young for today’s Golden State (with a third of residents under the age of 18).
Over the past generation, the city has prioritized public participation and empowering its youth in solving community problems – a strategy called “Gonzales Street“. In the process, Gonzales has produced attractive solutions to challenges from economic development to energy independence. Gonzales has been particularly strong on health issues — winning national awards as she found clever ways to make clinics and medical professionals serve her people, and vaccinating more than 99 percent of its eligible population for COVID.
Gonzales Youth Council—a body elected by students in grades 9 through 12th class—first established in 2015—has been a major player in this work because it has real power. The force has written local underage drinking laws and led a police-community relations effort. Its members participate in job interviews at local schools.
In the fall of 2019, youth council commissioners began talking about further focusing on mental health. When the pandemic hit, they accelerated their plans.
The council wanted to start with a broad survey of the youth of Gonzales. Unable to work in person, they had to take the survey online – and to make that happen, they secured funding (from Trinidad & Lupe Gomez Family Fundor local philanthropy), and sought advice from Gonzales himself CoLab, a collaboration between the city and area colleges to develop solutions to community problems. At a CoLab networking event, the new commissioners met Cal State Monterey Bay child psychology professor Jennifer Lovell.
“They were well on their way to creating their own survey already,” says Lovell, whose research team then joined forces with the council. Under the partnership, university researchers helped youth 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 the data.
Over the past generation, the city has prioritized public participation and empowering its youth to solve community problems—a strategy called the “Gonzales Way.”
The council conducted its first mental health survey in late spring 2020, focused on the question, “How well are young people doing during the COVID-19 crisis?” The survey included 52 questions (multiple-choice, graded, and open-ended) on topics ranging from loneliness and screen time to academic coping.
The results revealed significant mental stress 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 lessons. About 60 percent of middle and high school students with younger siblings surveyed reported having to help siblings complete their schoolwork online. And more than half of the high school-age respondents answered that they suffered from anxiety, depression, or both. Gonzales youth also reported needing more information on how to deal with these and other mental health issues.
The Youth Council quickly developed plans to provide that information and assistance. The council circulated its own mental health checks via Instagram. The council also shared hotline numbers, inspirational messages, coping tips and self-care reminders with students and required training for youth on how to respond when 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 youth with their mental health burden. As a result, these local governments decided to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness and make it easier for students to report mental health challenges.
The meetings also brought a new financial commitment. In January 2021, the city and school district agreed to share the cost hiring an additional licensed clinical social worker to support students’ mental health.
People are paying attention to Gonzales’ work as an example of what researchers call Youth-led participatory action research. Three youth council commissioners worked with Lovell’s team to write the peer-reviewed study in National Association of School Psychologists‘ quarterly magazine, School Psychology Review.
But the youth council isn’t done with the job, or satisfied with Gonzales’ mental health. 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 decreases in high levels of mental stress, anxiety and depression reported in 2020. But students reported continued difficulties balancing homework, family and managing their health, and said that wanted better access to mental health services.
“We’ve had some progress, mental health is being talked about more in school, but we need to continue to talk about reducing the stigma of mental health,” said youth council commissioner Sherlyn Flores-Magadan, a Gonzales High School senior. me. “And we need to provide more information to parents – that’s one of the keys to helping our teenagers.”
In Gonzales, there’s also talk of new peer-to-peer projects — especially around teaching, pedestrian safety and community gardens. The logic is straightforward: who better to help children than the children themselves?