Editor’s note: Luke Williams is a senior at Bishop Garcia Diego High School in Santa Barbara.
In December 2020, state Sen. Anthony J. Portantino, D-La Cañada Flintridge, introduced SB 14, legislation aimed at addressing teen mental health. As a high school student in Santa Barbara County who has experienced the benefits of a teen-focused mental health training program, I encourage California lawmakers to pass this important legislation as soon as possible.
A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report revealed more than one in three high school students reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness in 2019 — an increase of more than 40% compared to 2009. And that was before the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted in-person support systems of friends, teachers, and counselors.
SB 14 would require teachers and other school employees who have direct contact with students to receive training on how to recognize and respond to mental health and substance use challenges. It would also provide students in grades 10-12 with similar, age-appropriate training so they too could identify and respond to signs and symptoms of mental health struggles in their communities with friends and peers.
Oftentimes, the first people to notice changes in the behaviors of teens are other teens, their friends and peers. But I can tell you firsthand — it’s more difficult to get a read on how my friends are doing over video chats than it is in the cafeteria face-to-face.
However, last year my high school was among the pilot schools to participate in teen Mental Health First Aid (tMHFA), an evidence-based mental health training program. The course was enlightening. As a then-junior, it gave me a new perspective on mental health issues and, more importantly, the tools to help my peers or loop in a trusted adult if necessary.
The training I received made me a better citizen and helped to destigmatize mental health challenges. After completing the course, my friends and I discussed what we learned, and some revealed they struggled with anxiety or stress. tMHFA and the conversations we had inspired me to continue raising awareness of the importance of mental health, to use what I learned to make a difference.
I decided to further address mental illness within another part of my community, the Boy Scouts of America. When I was pursuing my Eagle Scout rank, one of the requirements was to complete the First Aid Merit Badge, which addresses the immediate physical needs of someone in distress.
Based on what I learned in tMHFA, I believe that immediate mental health needs should also be addressed, so I proposed a new Mental Health First Aid Merit Badge using the tMHFA curriculum.
My junior and senior years have been upended by a pandemic. Millions of students across California — including myself — started the 2020-2021 school year in an environment much different than imagined. This has impacted our mental health.
With the overwhelming amount of COVID-19 news, SB 14 could easily get overlooked. However, it is precisely because we are living in such challenging times that this bill needs our attention and the support of all California lawmakers.