THE CHRONICLE OF SOCIAL CHANGE

In high school, Cecilia Torres struggled with depression

“There were days where I really questioned if I was worthy,” she said.

As Torres found it difficult to get out of bed some mornings, she also found herself not wanting to talk with anybody about her mental health issues.

When she finally sought guidance from her school’s counselor, she was given a “short pep talk” and was “sent on [her] way.”

“I was never referred to a mental health professional,” Torres said. “That experience was hard to go through.”

Now 21 years old, Torres, a youth advocate at VOICES Youth Center in Napa, is taking a lead role in changing how youth interact with the mental health system at the local- and state-level in California.

Last week, California Youth Connection (CYC) — in partnership with Youth In MindYoung Minds Advocacy, and VOICES – announced a collaboration that is focused on engaging transitional aged youth (TAY) like Torres with California’s mental health systems. Over the next three years, the youth-led effort – funded by a grant from the Mental Health Services Oversight and Accountability Commission – will conduct outreach, provide training, and lobby policymakers with the intention to reduce stigma around mental health and to improve access to services.

The funding comes from California’s Mental Health Services Act (MHSA). MHSA was enacted in 2004 and created a pool of funds to be used to provide mental health resources to children and adults in need through a personal income tax on individuals who earn more than $1 million per year.

Kyle Sporleder is the director of policy for CYC, the organization leading the charge on this youth mental health collaborative.

According to him, mental health is a topic that frequently comes up when CYC sits down each year to identify the priority areas it wants to address.

“Our membership is current and former foster youth,” Sporleder said. “And mental health is more often than not associated with many of the issues that our members face.”

Sporleder says that the circumstances that catalyze an entrance into foster care are rooted in trauma. According to him, this trauma manifests itself in various mental health needs that are often unmet within the foster system, either because of a lack of access to services, or because the available services are not adequate.

Even though mental health has been brought up in past years by CYC members, this new collaborative marks the first step towards mobilizing for action around youth mental health in California – and the country.

“This [MHSA] funding has allowed us to come together with our collaborators and say that mental health is a priority for youth. This is a priority statewide, and this needs to be at the forefront of all of our work,” Sporleder said.

According to Sporleder, the collaborative is aiming to reduce the stigma associated with mental health and to standardize how California’s counties address mental health needs for youth.

“I think that what success for this project looks like,” Sporleder said, “is seeing youth that can proudly identify that they have mental health needs, that they no longer feel like they have to hide those needs, and that they feel successful in accessing services so that they can progress towards being healthier individuals.”

Annabelle Gardner, the director of communications and development at Young Minds Advocacy, agrees.

“One in five young people have, or will have, a mental health challenge,” Gardner said. “This isn’t some far-off population of people; this is our friends, our family members, and ourselves.”

“These health issues get swept under the rug and no one wants to talk about them,” she said. “And we know that there’s really serious consequences when we do that.”

According to Gardner, decisions about youth mental health policy have traditionally been made with little or no input from youth.

“What we’re trying to build are the resources and support that allow young people to be more engaged and to be more informed so that they can act on their own behalves to improve the mental health system that is impacting their lives,” Gardner said.

As Gardner puts it: “young people should be at the center of driving how we do that.”

Torres is a part of that youth drive.

Given her past experiences with mental health and her work at VOICES, Torres jumped at the opportunity to join the youth mental health collaborative’s governance board.

“I really want to advocate for youth,” she said.

To Torres, the youth-helping-youth model makes sense.

“Youth are either not being heard about what they’re struggling with, or they don’t know where they can go to get any kind of help or resources relating to mental health,” she said. “That’s why youth aren’t receiving the help that they need.”

“This project is going to be based on youth involvement and youth mentorship, because it’s really important for us to have an opportunity to raise our voices to let others know that what they’re going through is normal,” Torres said.

“Together, we can work as a team to remove the stigma around youth mental health.”

If you’re interested in getting involved with CYC’s youth mental health collaborative, you can sign up for the project’s mailing list here.