LAFAYETTE, Calif. — High school sophomore Kelly Morimoto says when her friend first came to her to talk about his depression she was “shocked.” No one, after all, had ever spoken to her about how to respond in these kinds of situations.
“I didn’t believe him [at first] because he seemed so normal all the time … like any other kid,” recalls Morimoto, 16, of the encounter in her freshman year. Not knowing what to say, she urged her friend to seek counseling, but he was “non-responsive. He didn’t want to seek help because he saw it as giving up.”
Morimoto – who attends Bentley Upper School, a private high school in Lafayette, an East Bay suburb outside San Francisco – is one of a number of young people in California who act as de-facto “first responders” for peers coping with mental health issues, despite having little to no training.
Some 30 percent of adolescents in California report experiencing depression or related feelings, such as anger, anxiety or guilt, according to Kidsdata.org. As with Morimoto’s friend, many of these young people turn to their peers first for help.
“He talked to me about it a lot. There would be phone calls where he’d be sitting there with a knife in his hands. It was intense,” says Morimoto. “I remember being really worried that I was going to miss his call, [and] a chance to save his life. It was a lot of responsibility.”
Mental health advocates say making courses on depression or related issues more a part of the curriculum in schools could go a long way in preparing youth like Morimoto to both detect signs of distress and how best to respond when they do.
Teaching mental health in the classroom
In January, California enacted a new law that looks to expand mental health education in classrooms. Prior education policy drafted more than a decade earlier did not include mental health as part of a school’s overall health curriculum.
Some of the topics covered under the new law include warning signs, symptoms, and definitions of common disorders, as well as how to obtain mental health services and overcome stigma. Revisions to the state’s Health Framework curriculum aren’t likely, however, until the 2015-16 school year.
Alicia Rozum is a project director with the California School Based Health Alliance, which works to expand health resources in California’s public schools. She says most of the teaching for students around mental health still happens outside the classroom.
She points to recent initiatives, like one in San Francisco that have led to the creation of school-based wellness centers that train young people in a variety of health education topics.
As of last year there were 226 such centers in public elementary, middle and high schools across the state, up from 200 in 2012. A majority of these centers provide basic health services at no cost, while just over half offer mental health services.
A recent study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health showed that a majority of students accessing these centers are “high risk,” and that most reported improvements in things like “student expectations” and “caring relationships” with others on campus, factors positively correlated to improved academic outcomes.
“These centers hire and work with young people,” explains Rozum, “who then go out and do presentations to their peers on topics like suicide prevention, social media and mental health.”
Rozum says the message is “so much more effective” in getting through to young people when it comes from peers, but she notes this kind of student engagement remains a “big but unfunded component” of her work.
Sarah Wilson is the lone counselor at Bentley, a school of some 320 students. While that ratio may seem high for a private school, even a small one like Bentley, in public schools the statewide average is closer to 1016 students per counselor.
But even if a counselor is available on campus, Wilson says students often turn to social media instead to open up about their struggles.
“People will report things to their friends, not necessarily face-to-face, but over text messaging or they’ll put something on Twitter that is kind of vague or suggestive of depression,” she says.
Students who get these messages then come to her for advice on how to respond. Many say they feel overwhelmed or like the problem is “over their heads.”
Wilson adds that for young people in distress, turning to parents for help is not always an option. “It could be they don’t feel understood by their parents or sometimes they don’t want to disappoint them … sometimes kids are actually trying to protect their parents, keep them from knowing just how rough of a time [they’re] having.”
That was the case for Max, 17. A junior at Bentley, Max (who declined to use his last name) says that before moving to California from Connecticut he “went through a deep funk” that began in the seventh grade. And while he’s reluctant to call it depression, he admits it was a “really hard time in my life.”
Still, rather than reaching out for help, Max says he kept his anguish “bottled up” from both of his parents. “My dad wouldn’t have understood whatsoever,” he says, “and my mom was too tired from work most nights.”
As for classmates, Max says stereotypes around mental illness among students kept him from opening up to friends. “No one understood what depression was, nobody understood what mental illness was and they just thought that it was just this weird concept.”
Eventually he did seek help, on the urging of his mom, who grew alarmed over his withdrawal from friends and family. Looking back, he says the school should have done more to educate students.
“People don’t know how to handle mental illness … we see people around and think, ‘Oh they’re just perfect on the inside and the outside,’ and it’s just not really the case.”
NAM intern Zachary Forster just graduated from Bentley Upper School and will begin classes this fall at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, where he plans to major in theater arts and communications. Additional reporting by NAM Education Editor Peter Schurmann.
To learn more about youth depression, visit NAM’s #FeelBetter campaign page, which features individual stories of young people dealing with depression as well as links to resources for treatment.