May 27, 2022

Young people recently shared their personal stories and experiences with mental illness – with peers, but also policymakers and elected officials – at the second Multnomah County Youth Mental Health Forum.

The May 21 forum, sponsored by Commissioner Sharon Meieran, enabled young people aged 13 to 21 to identify the critical mental health issues they face, the barriers they face when trying to access services, and possible solutions to overcome these barriers. Youth from across the region participated, representing districts such as Portland Public Schools, Beaverton School District, Gresham-Barlow School District and others.

The event included a resource fair, as well as three affinity spaces where young people could share with each other: one for BIPOC youth, one for LGBTQ+ youth, and an open youth group for any young people willing to participate.

“This is a space for young people and these are the voices we want to center today,” said Jason Anajovich, a youth leader at the forum, the first since 2020. Anajovich, who returned as emcee, is a sophomore at the University of Oregon.

This year, the event was held in person and virtually. About 80 young people and adults gathered in downtown Portland, joined by 10 virtual participants.

Commissioner Meieran said the forum provided an opportunity to learn from young people and inform public policy around mental health access and care. She stressed the importance of giving young people a space to share their experiences.

“I wish I had something like this to share my story and reduce the stigma,” she said, sharing that she’s suffered from depression and anxiety for as long as she can remember and this. wasn’t something she recognized when she was younger.

US Representative Suzanne Bonamici said she was “deeply concerned about the stresses and challenges facing young people today”.

She listed long-term social isolation as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, abrupt breaks in daily routines and drastic changes in school teaching as some of the adjustments young people have had to make at the over the past two years. These challenges have made mental health care for young people more important than ever, she said.

“We need to transform how mental health is understood, how it’s accessed, how it’s treated. And we have to fight the stigma – no one should be ashamed, embarrassed or afraid to seek help,” Rep. Bonamici said, saying mental and behavioral health should be treated the same as health. physical.

Representative Bonamici said the experiences shared at the forum can help members of Congress and policymakers advocate for new investments and programs that can expand access to behavioral health services for students and youth.

This includes one of its own bills, the RISE Act, which would require higher education institutions to provide incoming students with existing documentation of disabled access to disability accommodations.

“Sharing your stories is very important. It is much more important than listening to political discussion in the abstract,” she said.

Portland Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty said it’s important to bring the unfiltered voice of young people into the rooms where decisions are made that impact their lives.

“Use your collective voice and tell those of us who are elected what you need,” she said.

Jenny Duan, a senior student at Jesuit High School, shared her passion for mental health resources, access and equity. Duan recalled when her sister’s middle school banned the word “suicide”, raising concerns for herself, her sister and her peers about the stigma.

“Stigma really prevents young people from having the courage and the ability to seek help,” Duan said.

This pivotal moment inspired Duan to start and lead a mental health awareness club at his high school. Since then, the club has more than 100 members.

Jesse Fonseca, a senior from Centennial High School who attended the last Mental Health Forum as a table facilitator, spoke about creating a space where young people have a sense of belonging. Fonseca encouraged students to share their stories and experiences to create solutions.

“Use your voice to make our community a more positive space,” Fonseca said.

The forum featured small group roundtables, with each group assigned a facilitator. Among peers, young people answered questions about youth mental health services and barriers to accessing them.

Claire C., a first-year student at Jesuit High School, said parents’ lack of understanding about mental health can prevent some young people from receiving services. “When a lot of parents aren’t educated about mental health, it’s really hard to help their kids,” she said, “and it can be hard to open up.”

Emily A., a Skyview High School senior and Multnomah Youth Commissioner, said her table talks about ways to overcome barriers, including direct and proactive outreach to professionals.

“Schools expect us to be the first to reach out, when in reality it is extremely helpful to have mental health counselors and resources come to us first,” she said. .

Among the policy makers present were the county Curator Lori Stegmann; State Senator Lew Frederick; State Representatives Maxine Dexter and Lisa Reynolds; Aaron Barrow, member of the David Douglas School Board; board members Herman Greene and Amy Kohnstamm of Portland Public Schools; Parkrose School Board Member Cayle Tern; Denyse Peterson, Multnomah Education Service District Board Member; and Francisco Ibarra, a member of the Reynolds school board.

Commissioner Meieran’s office hosted 11 organizations for the post-forum resource fair, including Multnomah County Health Department, Oregon Asia-Pacific American Network, Youth Commission of Multnomah, YouthLine, Mental Health and Addiction Association of Oregon, Work2BeWell, Project Lotus, National Alliance on Mental Illness-Multnomah, Portland Opportunities Industrialization Center + Rosemary Anderson High School, Portland Parks and Recreation and Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste.

Commissioner Meieran said: “This whole event was youth driven and driven by young people, the barriers they face and what we can do better; it is the objective. »