Imagine attending high school and struggling to keep up: You have a hard time paying attention to class, you fall asleep, you’re not turning in homework, ditching class or you’re just plain truant. Maybe you’re not motivated. Or maybe something else is preventing you from feeling motivated, and you don’t know what it is.
In Gonzales, a small city along the Salinas Valley some 130 miles south of San Francisco, members of the town’s Youth Council decided to find out if mental health was an issue among their peers. In 2019, they began planning a project to learn more.
“At the beginning of every semester, the youth commissioners start talking about the projects they are going to focus on,” said Angela Rodriguez, a former Youth Council member now in her first year at UC Berkeley.
“There were a lot of project ideas, but we saw a common theme: we were focused on mental health. And we were serious about it when COVID exacerbated everyone’s mental state. It made the project even more important, which pushed our efforts.”
Now in its third year, the Gonzales youth mental health project has gained attention statewide for its innovative approach to engaging young residents in civic matters. Its research has been published in the School Psychology Review of the National Association of School Psychologists. The project earned a Ruth Vreeland Award for Engaging Youth in City Government from the League of California Cities, and it led to a partnership between the city and the Gonzales Unified School District to fund a social worker to assist students.
“I was blown away,” said Luke Naegle, 16, a Gonzales Youth Commissioner, on his reaction when he found out about the award. “I was like, ‘Wow. We’re finally being recognized for our hard work and our effort.’ It was an astonishing moment for us... It’s paying off, and it really motivated us to keep moving forward.”
Launched in 2015, the Gonzales Youth Council is a unique project in Monterey County in that its members are deeply involved in city affairs that affect young people. The Youth Council has about 20 members, two of which also serve as commissioners for the City Council, representing the youth voice. Although the mental health project has given the Council the most acclaim, it’s not the only one that has earned praise. The Youth Council promoted “No Straws November” to urge restaurants to stop handing out plastic straws. The council also advocated modifying penalties for underage drinking; for increased academic resources for students; and it’s been the driving force behind the Teen Innovation Center, which received a $5 million seed grant from the California State Senate.
“We are the voice for young students in Gonzales,” said Anixia Davila, a 16-year-old junior who also serves on the Youth Council. “We take in or hear problems in our community, and we meet when we can on Thursdays, to essentially address these problems and see, ‘Do we want to take on these problems to fix them?’ But we also have specific action projects that we do each term or year.”
For the mental health project, students worked with Jennifer Lovell, a psychology professor at California State University Monterey Bay. Together, they designed the survey, which has questions such as “On a scale of one to five, how often do you feel stress?” Youth Council members also recruited youth to respond to the survey. They analyzed the results, shared them and later advocated for change.
The results were alarming. Of the 374 respondents, more than half indicated they were at risk of anxiety or depression. Two-thirds said they were falling behind academically as they struggled with online learning while having to help to take care of younger siblings. Many appeared to be confused with the term “counselor,” believing that it solely referred to school counseling and not someone you go to for mental health issues. Armed with this data, the Youth Council began advocating for increased support.
“The project increased access to vital mental health resources for Gonzales youth, such as an additional social worker, while also amplifying the issue of youth mental health and encouraging conversations around the topic of mental health,” said Carmen Gil, a strategic partnerships director with the City of Gonzales.
Marie*, a junior at Gonzales High School, said she felt relief when she first received the survey.
“I had been struggling at the time, and of course wanted to participate, not only for myself but for other people, to represent them and show that mental health is an issue that’s been going on a lot since the pandemic,” Marie said. “It kind of made me have this sort of like a ray of hope, because it showed that my fellow high school students are like trying to get it through to everybody else in the community that a lot of students are struggling. It made me feel like we have a voice in what’s going on, and the adults are able to understand what we’re going through and the kinds of difficulties we’re having. I just think that’s really remarkable.”
Angela Rodríguez, who has also taken part in Voices of Monterey Bay’s Young Voices Media Project, had a chance to see some small changes.
“It’s very easy to joke around mental health” in high school, she said. “I saw a rise in a more serious attitude towards it. In my senior year, there were some incidents where people were not treated fairly and I saw very mature handling of these situations. Students who had that knowledge of (how) mental health works, were way more understanding. They were little changes, but I was glad to see them.”
The Gonzales Youth Council is working on the second phase of the mental health project, one that helps document the changes since the pandemic. A total of 240 students have answered the second survey, said Youth Commissioner Sherlyn Flores-Magadan.
“We wanted to see the difference, if these students who answered in 2020, how are they adjusting back to normal,” she said.
According to the preliminary results, there’s a significant decline in the respondents who could be at risk for anxiety or depression. “It may be because of the resources,” Flores-Magadan said.
“We are going to present it to the school district: this is what we got, this is what we need to support us,” she said. “I feel this project will continue. It won't stop there. The Youth Council has been eager to work to see what resources our students need.”
Claudia Meléndez Salinas contributed to this report. *Not her real name.
This story was produced by Voices of Monterey Bay and is part of a collaborative project “You’re Not Alone” that includes content from young journalists from Boyle Heights Beat, Coachella Unincorporated, The kNOw, Richmond Pulse, Voices of Monterey Bay, We’Ced and YR Media.