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Dixon superintendent: Students are experiencing a mental health crisis. We have to do more

Sacramento Bee - 9/27/2022

These are difficult days for my students of the past, the present and the future. They need more from us.

September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. The need for better help and better health and my deepening concern for the well-being of our kids had led me to share my own story of struggling with mental health.

April 16, 2018, was one of those days I thought I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed. My body was fine, but my mental health was not. The depression that has been an unwelcome companion of mine throughout my life had me under its control again. I had my plan, including a bottle of pills, and was ready to follow it.

Thankfully, I pushed past that moment and somehow went to work. There, I told my most trusted colleagues how ill I was and that I needed a leave of absence to try to get well. I left the office in tears and feeling very scared. I got a lot of support, especially from those to whom I had once preached to take care of themselves. Others, however, saw fit to judge my situation.

With full medical coverage and paid leave, I was among the fortunate. I returned to work after two months — much healthier, but never free from my illness.

Our young people are deep into a mental health crisis. It has been building for many years, with evidence that the pandemic and its effects worsened this crisis significantly. Depression and anxiety are the most common forms of mental illness experienced by young people, yet it’s estimated that only 12% of youth with major depression receive consistent care, while 60% of them receive none.

Mental health disorders among our youth mostly go untreated. Shame on us.

The relationship between mental illness and suicide is a close one. The World Health Organization estimates that 90% of suicide victims have some form of mental illness. Suicidal ideation, attempts and deaths have been steadily increasing for more than a decade. Twenty percent of U.S. high school students report seriously thinking of suicide and 9% actually attempt it.

I have seen too many of my students die during my career, and nothing is as devastating as the death of a young person by suicide.

So what do we do? We must meet our moral and ethical obligations by treating this as the emergency it is. Our government, schools, and health care systems must prioritize and invest the necessary resources into addressing this crisis. This is a monumental task, but if we can do it for other crises, we can prevent kids who have suffered for years from taking drastic action.

I see three basic steps we must take to address this crisis.

First, we have to talk about mental illness: Stigma is a huge impediment to wellness. Safe ways to share our stories and listen to others are critical to helping normalize mental illness.

Second, education is paramount: There is a wealth of information to help us understand causes, symptoms and treatment which also inform the foundation for action.

Third, we must treat mental illness: Mental health services, including medical care, should be available to everyone regardless of their socioeconomic or immigration status, ethnicity, gender identity, or other distinguishing characteristics.

There is a long history of discrimination and mistreatment of mentally ill people, including our youth. We have gotten better, but we haven’t solved the problem yet. Now, we’re at risk of seeing future generations crippled by mental illness and lost to suicide without ever reaching their full potential.

Like others, I have not talked about this publicly — until now. It’s a small step. But significant actions around teaching and treatment must come next. Young lives depend on it.

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