The message was clear: “No one can do this alone.” Laura Roberts, MD, MA, chair of Stanford University School of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences kicked off the first annual Adolescent Mental Wellness Conference by addressing a diverse crowd of advocates who are passionate about improving access to care and resources for mental health. “We’re all in this together,” she emphasized.
Throughout the conference, held from August 5 through 6 at the South San Francisco Conference Center, attendees were charged to work as a team to help break the stigma affiliated with mental health. Christopher G. Dawes, chief executive officer of Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford and Stanford Children’s Health, said that the topic of mental health is all too often “the elephant in the room” and applauded the nearly 400 attendees who came together to open up discussion around it. Attendees, including clinicians, policymakers, educators, parents and students from local high schools and colleges, shared their diverse perspectives on the topic of mental health issues among young people in order to collectively identify gaps in resources and work to find potential solutions.
“By bringing together all these various stakeholders, our goal was to break down the silos of physical and mental health and begin the important integration of the two as part of overall wellness,” said Sherri Sager, chief government and community relations officer at Packard Children’s and Stanford Children’s Health, who served as co-chair of the conference. “Then we can move further toward caring for the whole child, and thus reduce the stigma often attached to mental health.”
For students, the conference provided a platform for bringing important issues to the attention of key policymakers. Nicole Hong, a rising senior at Gunn High School in Palo Alto, knows several students who have tragically died by suicide. She acknowledged that her peers don’t talk about how they’re feeling because “there’s pressure to be the perfect human being, and people are afraid to ask for help.” Because of this, she says it is difficult to know what is going on in people’s lives and to tell when they might be in need of support or intervention.
Policymakers discussed the importance of increasing preventative measures for mental health. Mayor-elect of the city of Sacramento and former California Senate Pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg encouraged attendees to think big and to think about systemic change. He discussed the Mental Health Services Act (Proposition 63), which provides approximately 2 billion dollars each year for mental health care in California, with one component focused on prevention, including early psychosis identification and intervention treatment. He charged attendees with a mission — to get ahead of mental illness before it becomes full-blown psychosis, which can have negative repercussions, including homelessness and suicide. Currently in 17 counties — including Santa Clara and San Mateo — the Mental Health Services Act has enrolled hundreds of young people in early psychosis support programs. Steinberg spoke to the importance of bringing this approach to scale and making youth mental health needs a top priority statewide, with increased mental health training among pediatricians and expansion of school mental health support. He told the many teens in the audience, “If we’re going to really have success, your voice needs to be heard. If you have a story to tell and you’re willing to tell it, you could change public policy.”
Clinicians echoed the importance of building access to early intervention and support. Steven Adelsheim, MD, director of the Stanford Center for Youth Mental Health and Wellbeing, discussed one promising model of early intervention, called ‘headspace,’ which is currently active in Australia and which the Stanford School of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences is working to implement locally. This model would offer confidential, low-cost walk-in physical and mental health care for young people ages 12 to 25 right in Santa Clara County.
This was welcomed by parents like former mayor of Palo Alto Vic Ojakian, who lost his own son to suicide. “We need easy, comfortable places for people to get help,” he said. Ojakian spoke to the Silicon Valley Business Journal about the need to break the stigma around seeking help for mental health issues: “Mental health is nondiscriminatory — it’s egalitarian. All of us know if you break your arm, you go get care for it. But when it happens with your brain, there’s a level of sacredness with it.”
Throughout the conference, the message of teamwork resonated among all attendees.
“We witnessed exciting dialogues between our young people, who have powerful voices and perspectives on the topic of mental wellness, and caring adults from the worlds of policy, health care and education. Together this network has the ability to carry out dramatic change through a central message of breaking down the barriers associated with mental health stigma,” said Adelsheim. For teens, the open conversation was seen as a step toward preventing further tragedy. As Hong said, “my hope is that this conference will help people have the courage to speak up before it’s too late.”
- Kate DeTrempe
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