Youth-led study prompts change to mental health care in Gonzales
The city of Gonzales won the 2022 Helen Putnam Award for Excellence in the Ruth Vreeland Award for Engaging Youth in City Government category. For more information about the award program, visit www.helenputnam.org.
Youth throughout California are struggling with mental illness. Although the reasons are both systemic and highly personal, one thing is clear: Their mental health worsened during the pandemic.
The nationwide mental health crisis is particularly acute in places like Gonzales (pop. 8,439). The culturally diverse community sits in the heart of the Salinas Valley’s agricultural region. Approximately a third of the city’s population is under the age of 18. Ninety percent identify as Hispanic or Latino, a community that historically shies away from seeking mental health services.
A recent survey of high school students in Gonzales found that nearly a third of students were at risk for depression and anxiety. As policymakers and leaders advance major changes to the state’s behavioral health system, students in Gonzales are also making changes to their own systems of care through the Gonzales Youth Council.
A student-led project and survey
The Gonzales Youth Council is a youth leadership and development program led and funded by the city, with support from the Gonzales Unified School District and two youth advisors. The program seeks to engage youth in the civic life of the city and its schools through projects and direct participation in city government and decision-making. It also brings the youth voice directly to the city council and school district.
The youth council is comprised of 12-15 students and is led by two youth commissioners. Each year, the council selects a service-learning project to improve the community. These projects often reflect current concerns in the community, particularly among youth. The 2021 youth council chose mental health as their service-learning project as they recognized students were stressed by school closures, social isolation, and the challenges of remote learning.
The youth council received a $2,000 grant from the Trinidad & Lupe Gomez Family Fund and partnered with Dr. Jennifer Lovell and undergraduate researchers at California State University, Monterey Bay, for the development of a survey on mental health and social-emotional well-being.
The survey was emailed to middle and high school students and received 374 responses. Survey questions covered academic concerns, mental health, overall wellness, and demographic information. Researchers and students retrieved both qualitative and quantitative data for analysis. The goal was to acquire information that would allow the council to both advocate for students’ well-being and identify what support and resources would be helpful to provide in the future.
The survey revealed that many Gonzales youth were struggling with their mental health, reporting elevated levels of anxiety symptoms and stress. Over half of high school students scored above the cutoff score on a screener for anxiety, depression, or both. Roughly a quarter of respondents said they felt lonely half the time, most of the time, or always. Over 40% indicated they felt stressed often or all the time and 30% were at risk for both depression and anxiety.
Most participants were also struggling to stay motivated with schoolwork. When asked if they knew where to access mental health support, most students said “no” and explained that they had no idea where or how to seek those services, adding to the gravity of the issue and validating the call for more readily available local mental health resources and support.
“One thing that resonated with me from the survey findings was the huge responsibility older siblings felt serving as a support system for their younger siblings academically,” said Magaly Santos, a Gonzales youth commissioner and project leader. “It would be great for students at the high school to have a support system for themselves and their families.”
The survey found that 39% of participants wanted to receive tips and support for improving their mental health via email and social media. To help support their peers, the youth council created a Mental Health Awareness video and provided outreach through email and social media. Using their research, the youth council outlined how teachers could help motivate students in a remote learning environment and how families could help support their child’s academic success.
The youth council summarized the survey results in a series of infographics and developed a presentation to educate and engage others in their efforts. The youth commissioners presented their findings to stakeholders — including the Monterey County Board of Supervisors, the city council, and the school district — to advocate for the creation of safe spaces that support youth mental health and other mental health resources.
“The presentation was impressive and eye-opening,” Monterey County Supervisor Chris Lopez said. “Being involved in the youth council and tackling this project provided the youth the ability to shine a light on a very important issue and bring it to our attention directly through their voice.”
The findings were a wake-up call for local leaders unaware of the depth of mental health issues that young people were facing. The youth council’s action project prompted the city council and school district to jointly fund a second school-based licensed clinical social worker and generated more community support for mental health care.
“This program, and in particular the mental health project, is a great example of how allowing youth a voice in matters can reflect change,” Mayor Pro Tem Scott Funk said. “We are proud of our youth and it’s important for us as adult leaders to continually be listening.”
The youth council also researched and coauthored their own study about the mental health survey project. The article, “Using Youth-led Participatory Action Research to Advance the Mental Health Needs of Latinx Youth During COVID-19,” was published in the National Association of School Psychologists. Publication in a national scholarly journal is a rare achievement for high school students and the article is one of only a few coauthored by youth researchers.
The Gonzales Youth Council program has produced a steady stream of initiatives that have advanced solutions to both youth issues and issues of importance to the entire community. It has resulted in greater civic engagement among youth, helped deepen their knowledge and understanding of city and school administration, and cultivated leadership skills in those who serve.