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Understanding Our Kids: Youth Mental Health and the Road to Resilience

To better understand the mental health challenges facing youth today, Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian held a panel discussion at Los Altos High School that brought together experts in the mental health field as well as youth mental health advocates. Titled, “Understanding Our Kids: Youth Mental Health and the Road to Resilience,” the discussion focused on how to identify and prevent a mental health crisis, the availability of County and community mental health services for families in crisis, and the benefits of peer-to-peer support systems.

As the moderator, Simitian kicked off the discussion with a question for Dr. Jennifer Zumarraga, a child-adolescent psychiatrist at El Camino Health and the medical director of the After-School Program Interventions and Resiliency Education (ASPIRE) program at El Camino.

“How can you tell if someone needs help? What are the signs that friends and family members should be looking for?”

Zumarraga noted that changes in behavior are usually a sign that something isn’t quite right with your teen. Among the examples she gave were a drop in grades, getting into fights with friends, isolation, or sleeping too much or too little. Anything that seems to be interfering with how they’re functioning could be a sign that something may be wrong, she said. 

The panel agreed on the benefits of the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline as a critical mental health resource, with William Blair, Wellness Coordinator for the Mountain View Los Altos High School District, noting that it’s not just an emergency line, but a number anyone can call when they need guidance, support, or finding outpatient care.

“We like to tell our students that they can reach out to 988 and it doesn’t have to be a crisis in the traditional sense of the word,” he said.

Rani Sindledecker, a sophomore at Mountain View High School and youth mental health advocate, talked about destigmatizing mental health among youth, which, she suggested, begins by talking about it more, especially at school, where young people spend much of their time. Beyond talking, it’s important to put mental health “front and center” by posting flyers with referral information in classrooms and on digital learning platforms. Doing so, she said, would help quell fears teens often feel around drama, rumors, abandonment, and being perceived as weak.

“They need to feel safe and that’s what we need to be doing on the school campus,” she said. “We need to make those resources more accessible and more repetitive so that the students are hearing about them more often.” 

“The more we talk about it and the more we validate that their experience is real then they’re more likely to get the support they need,” Blair added.

Rani’s youth counterpart on the panel, Aadya Mishra, a senior at Saint Francis High School, and member of the allcove Youth Advisory Group, extolled the benefits of providing “safe spaces” for teens to express themselves. As an “integrated service model,” allcove is an example of such a space, Aadya said, offering everything from guitar lessons and karaoke nights to peer support specialists and guidance counselors – all under one roof.

“And it’s not just for youth,” she said. “It’s led by youth.”

As critical as peer connection and mentorship are, both Rani and Aadya touched on the important role that adults play in a young person’s life. And it’s not just about lecturing “at them,” they said, but they want to see adults show their own vulnerability and that they can trust their teen. 

“Having a trusted adult in your life is really life-changing,” said Aadya. Even when young people are resistant to help, she advised adults to “keep trying; keep showing you care.”

Blair highlighted the benefits of play time, rest, and spending time with family as ways to manage academic stress in high pressure school environments.

“Kids are so much more than their grades or their sports or whatever their specific extracurricular is,” he said. “Really giving young people the space to explore and figure out what it is they really want – fostering that and growing that, I think, would be the best way to do it.”

The evening included a screening of a short documentary film by Rani, titled “The Peer-to-Peer Movement: Students Saving Lives.” “Peer-to-Peer” was one of the second-prize high school west division winners in C-SPAN Classroom's StudentCam documentary contest. A freshman when she produced the film, Rani explored the theme: “If you were a newly elected member of Congress, which issue would be your first priority and why?”

Watch the discussion and learn more about our event. 

Additional information about mental health programs and resources that support the needs of children, youth, young adults, and their families is available online.