YAC holds town hall to discuss mental health

Local youths listen to audience comments about mental health during Monday night’s YAC town hall. Students had a chance to ask local professionals about issues affecting themselves and their peers.

The Youth Advisory Committee (YAC) held its second town hall Monday night to discuss youth mental health issues with a panel of nine local professionals.

“We want the youth in the room to be aware of the resources that Cottage Grove has to offer and identify some of the missing pieces that the Youth Advisory Council can use as our targeted goals for the rest of the year,” said YAC Chair MJ Raade, a junior at Cottage Grove High School.

YAC, a youth group conducted in partnership with the city which serves as a local communication link between the city council and young people in the community, attracted an audience of about a dozen youths and other interested parties to City Hall.

Professionals in select fields took nearly two hours to answer questions from youths on a variety of mental health topics such as barriers to receiving help, social stigmas and local resources.

The panel of nine included: Cottage Grove Peer Court Coordinator Kathy Kelty; Chief Administrative Officer at PeaceHealth Cottage Grove Community Medical Center Tim Herrmann; Suicide Prevention Coordinator for Lane County Public Health Roger Brubaker; community health worker for PeaceHealth and Family Resource Center Coordinator for South Lane School District (SLSD) Ana-Maria Dudley; Cottage Grove Police Department Detective and Crisis Intervention Specialist Jason Cross; Executive Director for South Lane Mental Health Damien Sands; Program Supervisor for the Looking Glass Rural Program Amanda Hampton; McKinney-Vento Liaison for SLSD Jade Chamness; and Cottage Grove High School Principal Kevin Herington.

The discussion began by attempting to define the perimeters mental health.

“I think mental health, especially when I think of youth mental health, we’re talking about how that person is experiencing life as a whole,” explained Sands. “So they might experience things that we call a diagnosis … but I think when I look at youth mental health as an issue overall, it’s about that person’s well-being in the community.”

Other panelists shared Sands’ sentiment that the topic deserved a broad scope of context and understanding in order to address the array of issues that may arise.

“Many times that’s the role of public health,” said Brubaker, “is to think about all the different situations, circumstances, conditions and environments that we have in our communities and how that sets the stage for how mental health problems and crises develop in our community.”

Youths also asked what role peers themselves could play in reaching out to those experiencing mental anguish.

Panelists recommended talking to a trusted adult or those with training or experience in the related area, though also emphasized the utility of simply lending a shoulder or an ear to a friend.

“Sometimes we just need to know that we’re not alone and that the feelings or whatever we’re struggling with isn’t just us being crazy — it’s us responding normally to stressors in our lives,” said audience member Ali Canino, a therapist at South Lane Mental Health.

Students in the audience raised the issue of mandatory reporters as a possible barrier to talking to an adult.

Hampton recommended asking an adult directly if they are a mandatory reporter to determine whether or not to share certain information.

“And I don’t want to diminish that barrier or concern at all because it’s very real,” said Herington, “but I think that there is a reason those laws are in place — and that’s to protect the youth from situations of abuse and neglect. So while there might be some temporarily tough times, if we don’t intervene in a situation that’s abusive, it persists over a longer period of time.”

The stigma particular to teens surrounding mental health issues was also cited by the audience as a formidable barrier to seeking help.

Brubaker encouraged students to look out for one another. He acknowledged the possible effectiveness of asking a peer to reach out for help, “however research shows it’s much more likely for someone to access services of many kinds if people reach in,” he said. “We need to be pretty persistent. And I would say that’s an expression of care. … It’s not just the person who is suffering’s job exclusively to get help. It’s our job also.”

In identifying mental health issues they saw as most salient, youths listed eating disorders, pressure from social media, anxiety, depression, misconceptions about mental health and a lack of self-care knowledge as the most notable issues among their peers.

Students and school district staff also raised the prospect of improving access to resource information within the district and Sands pointed to an overarching need for systemic improvement. 

“Our current children’s system … is not in a good place. It doesn’t work the way it should be working right now,” he said. “I think locally we do a good job, but at the state level for those kids that are really, really struggling … there’s not a lot of resources.”

As the event finished, panelists noted that the town hall itself was a therapeutic instrument in addressing local youth mental health issues.

“There’s hope in this world, right? This is amazing to see the kids speak from the heart,” said Dudley. “It just blew me away to see this on their young shoulders, that they have decided to also put this on their plate.”

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