Westlake High School. (Photo by Alexa Warren)
Westlake High School

Opinion: We can do more to help teens with mental illnesses

High school students in Oregon recently received tremendous mental health support from their state government. New York Times announced that on July 1 of this year, Oregon passed a law that allows high school students to take five mental health days within a three-month period.

This bill in Oregon came to fruition due to support of several teens from Parkland, Fla., who desired to take action towards mental health initiatives in response to the recent high school shootings. In terms of other U.S. states making progress in the mental health space, in 2018, Utah considered mental illness as a “valid excuse” to miss a day of school.

California has yet taken such bold steps to aid its high school students with mental illness, even though mental illness is also a growing neglected issue among all teens in America. According to MedicineNet, suicide is the third leading cause of death in people ages 10 to 24. Every 100 minutes, a teen takes their own life, according to suicide.org. Apart from suicide, MedicineNet states that 20% of high school students are affected by depression before they become adults.

Over the past few years, several students at my high school committed suicide. And yet, I noticed my school and Los Angeles community have not implemented more effective mental health programs in response to these suicides. It is discouraging to see that we are not doing more to support teens with mental illness, especially in light of the recent teen suicides and high school shootings.

If legislators from Utah and Oregon can pass such as law, what is stopping California from doing so?

The mental health system in California is “struggling” and “broken,” according to many mental health advocates in Cal Matters. Even though the millionaire’s tax, passed in 2004, allocates $2 billion a year toward mental health programs, leadership and strategic vision is lacking and not unified, according to Cal Matters.

California’s fragmented mental health system affects high school students in two ways. First, it prevents more high schools from establishing effective mental health programs. Secondly, it hinders a teenager’s ability to access affordable mental health treatments.

In high school, my brother suffered from depression and anxiety. When he sought medication and therapy to treat his mental illness, our health insurance did not cover these services. Thus, we had trouble affording these treatments. He is not alone — many of my peers, including myself, cannot afford to seek treatment for our depression and anxiety.

So if many high school students cannot afford mental health treatments due to lack of healthcare coverage, and many high schools do not offer mental health supportive programs like Utah and Oregon do, is there anything Californian students, parents, and teachers can do to address the rise of teen suicide and untreated depression?

The first step is through promoting mental health education, particularly with noting the signs for depression. In article for World of Psychology, Therese J. Borchard writes that some signs of depression are hopelessness, low self-esteem, sluggishness, substance abuse, and spending time alone.

Once these signs are noticed, the second step would be to develop accessible treatment options for high school students who lack the funds to seek professional therapy. Although smartphone apps are no replacements for therapy, they can be a more affordable vehicle to receive some sort of mental health help. Healthline lists several apps, such as Moodpath, Talklife, and Daylio, to name a few. Additionally, the suicide hotline (1-800-273-8255) has been imperative towards saving lives.

Finally, talking about mental health in schools and households is vital towards reminding teens that they are not alone and they are not ignored. Recognizing mental health as a serious illness, rather than ignoring it or feeling ashamed about it, gives high school students like myself an opportunity to talk about what they are going through.

If we, as a state, cannot bring about change on a governmental level regarding mental health laws, then we, as a community, must do more to make teens feel less alone.