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Marin Addresses the Teen Mental Health Crisis

Mental illness has touched millions of people across the country. However, until very recently, its discussion in public circles has been resisted. In the last few years, national discourse has shifted from viewing mental health as something to hide to something that needs treatment and support and has led to improved understanding of its complexities and nuances. Part of this is a generational shift, members of Generation Z and younger (born between 1997-2013) are much more likely to come forward and acknowledge their mental health struggles. In turn, more young people are seeking out treatment for mental health struggles compared to other generations. Younger generations are much more likely to view struggles such as depression and anxiety as the health issues they are.

This new willingness to speak up is evidenced in the latest California Healthy Kids survey which is one way the Marin County Office of Education gains insight into the mental health struggles and awareness of its students. This annual report highlights student survey responses on everything from substance use to social emotional health. The nationwide pattern of increased mental health struggles are reflected among Marin students. In the 2021-2022 school year 20 percent of Tamalpais Union High School District ninth graders reported feeling lonely most of or all of the time. In the same year, 46 percent of San Rafael City High students reported experiencing “Chronic Sad or Hopeless Feelings.” It is important to not dismiss this increase as merely a response to the issues being destigmatized. A Time Magazine article explains, “Is it just that teens became increasingly comfortable admitting to problems? No: Behaviors linked to depression such as self-harm, suicide attempts, and deaths by suicide also increased, especially among girls.” It is not just a result of mental health cases being more accurately reported, but a genuine increase in students struggling with their mental health who need support.

Marin County has recently made significant efforts to implement resources within the public schools as well as encouraging youth agency through its new Student Wellness Ambassador Program (SWAP). SWAP is funded by the Marin County Behavioral Health and Recovery Services through the Office of Education and designed in direct partnership with middle and high school students. Currently offered in six schools (San Rafael Elementary, San Rafael High School, Lagunitas, Bolinas, Stinson, and Shoreline), students are trained as wellness ambassadors and equipped with information and tools needed to empathetically listen to their peers and steer them towards the most appropriate resources.

Youth Transforming Justice is pleased to be participating as one of the training partners for the SWAP program, providing the youth volunteers with lessons in trauma-informed practices and how to effectively run Community Building Circles to facilitate building trust and safe spaces to share common struggles. “Marin SWAP has been an excellent partner with YTJ as we have been learning from each other about facilitating discussions in the Community Building Circles format,” says Elizabeth Escalante, a Restorative Practices Facilitator with YTJ. Escalante also shares that “even those difficult conversations that intend on resolving conflicts are most effectively done in a circle format where every person involved can have that opportunity to share their own perspectives in a restorative manner,” said Elizabeth Escalante, our Restorative Practices Facilitator. Escalante along with many others in our YTJ staff and internship program have admired the work of SWAP and been grateful for our collaborations.

Marin County Superintendent of Schools, John Carroll, said he has already seen the SWAP team as a helpful tool in giving youth a better understanding of mental health as well as providing a comfortable peer-to-peer space for youth to be open about their struggles. Marin County’s Office of Education recognizes the additional obstacles youth from marginalized communities can face when seeking out support and has made one of their stated goals to “improve outcomes for youth of color and LGBTQ+ youth.”

Carroll has two kids that grew up in Marin and has seen how the conversation surrounding mental health in the community has evolved, and for the most part in a positive direction. “When I was a kid you just didn’t talk about mental health…I think we’ve come a long way in people being able to identify mental health issues.” Programs like SWAP are a resource not only for education to further destigmatize these discussions, but to provide tangible resources to youth in need. Parents also need to be receptive to hearing about struggles that may feel awkward or unfamiliar to talk about. Carrol says, “If I could pick one important thing it would be that adults need to listen to youth and really be receptive and open minded to hearing something that might be different than the struggles older people like me went through when we were young. It’s a different world. I talked to my son and he brings up anxiety and when I was his age I didn’t talk to my dad about anxiety. I didn’t know what anxiety was. So people like me need to be receptive and go ‘okay I need to take that seriously.” Carroll emphasizes that it is important to encourage struggling youth to speak out, “but that doesn’t do much if we’re not listening to them.”

Making youth feel more comfortable in seeking out help requires creating an overarching environment where mental health is openly talked about and normalized in schools, after-school programs, and other organizations catering to youth. Carroll shares, “We have to create a culture where people realize that there is help. Whether you see that on a poster in the bathroom or getting advice from a counselor or teacher. We want to encourage people to talk to family members and friends.” This will help empower youth with the agency to ask for the support they need as well as help design the solutions that will help create better outcomes for them and future generations.

Marin Mental Health Resources

  • 988 Mental Health Support Line

  • Text MARIN to number to get a response

  • Trevor Project

  • Huckleberry Youth Crisis Hotline

  • Cal Hope

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