By Ruby Coulson, Guest Blogger
Destigmatizing mental health is more than just saying the words, and it’s going to take significant steps.
The Washington state Legislative Youth Advisory Council (LYAC) worked with Representative Jesse Johnson (D-30), Representative Lisa Callan (D-5), and Representative Sharon Tomiko Santos (D-37) to implement a new mental health bill, House Bill 1834. 1834’s goal is to implement more excused mental health days for K-12 education and set up more comprehensive support for students requesting these days. LYAC has always been a leading advocate for youth mental health priorities, working with legislators in the 2020-21 year to pass House Bill 1373, a bill that requires that every public school website publish contact information for suicide prevention, crisis intervention, depression and anxiety, eating disorders, and substance abuse. It passed with resounding support, with only six nays in the House out of 98. LYAC is a group of economically, politically, geographically, and socially diverse young people lobbying for causes ranging from K-12 Education to Climate and Conservation. The reach of LYAC expands from Western Washington in the 24th district to Spokane in the 4th district, and we actively work to include as much youth voice as possible in our legislative actions.
LYAC also worked with Federal Way Associated Student Body (ASB), the original brains behind this operation, and often came to meetings to voice student support. We spent many hours with the education committee chair, and the Federal Way ASB was there for all of it, going through several bill drafts and fine-tuning the vocabulary. This kind of effort was a considerable push towards this bill getting introduced in pre-filing and having so much legislative support off the bat, including legislators in districts from Western Washington.
As education advocates, we know the pandemic’s impact on young people’s mental health, social isolation, and political turmoil have created incomprehensible instability in youth’s lives. I can rattle off statistics such as teen suicides increasing 38% from 2012 to 2019 (1), or that 78% of girls under 18 feel unhappy with their bodies (2), or even that 18% of youth report experiencing a major depressive episode in 2018-19 (3). And those are all PRE-pandemic. While the numbers are significant, the emphasis on youth voice has always been LYAC’s priority, so I’ve compiled some students’ responses on the value of this bill to them.
LYAC’s POV and Experiences
When I asked fellow LYAC member Israel Lopez what mental health means to him, he said, “Youth mental health is one of the most important issues in all of the US. With growing suicide rates and declining mental health, it’s vital we take care of our national youth and prevent the next tragedy.” When asking peers at my school how they define good mental health practices, one said, “Having a balance of stages throughout your life and being able to reach ‘next week’ or ‘next month.’ In my opinion, this shows motivation or excitement for your future and can be a good way to check in with youth. This will assist in finding healthy goals within your reach, finding hopes and dreams, and finding resources to thrive in your best situation.” Other students expressed concern that potentially excused mental health days will make it worse for advanced and honors students if there is no forgiveness, considering how quickly they can fall behind. All of LYAC agrees that mental health is vital, and creating a new narrative around the measures to support youth is one of the first steps.
Destigmatizing mental health starts with changing the conversation around students who need to take days off from “Oh, they’re so weak, they just need to tough it out like I did” to “How can we help make sure you’re doing the best you can with your circumstances.” Like an Individualized Educational Program (IEP), some students will need more help, and the mental health day leniency will support that. While some students will only need one day off, others will need all 5 and will really benefit from the additional resources supplied to them once they’ve requested these days. Creating early support in schools for mental health will assist LYAC in building accurate and targeted legislation in the future to continue improving students’ mental well-being.
The Washington state Legislative Youth Advisory Council (LYAC) is codified in law as the official youth advisory body to the state legislature, and its activities are wide-ranging. Throughout the year, 14-to-18-year-old student members of the council actively lobby legislators, testify in committee, advise various government agencies, host events around the state, collaborate with nearly 200 community organizations, and much more. LYAC also spends much time conversing with young people in every corner of Washington about their priorities in order to be a more effective advocate to the legislature.
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