Editor’s note: This story contains discussion of suicide and mental illness.
Days after their friend’s death, a group of Berkeley High students gathered downtown, putting together a homemade memorial, painting the tiles on the sidewalk. A phoenix with the phrase “Still I Rise” emerged. So did a trumpet, a heart and an oar.
The high school senior’s death on April 18 has been called a suicide by the Alameda County coroner, though the case is still open. Many of his classmates witnessed the death, which happened downtown. Berkeleyside isn’t naming the teen to protect his family’s privacy.
Shock gave way to grief.
“I have never heard that school be so quiet,” said Eva Adams, a classmate of the teen who died. “You’d walk into school and you’d see people crying outside on the floor,” said Mary Calderon Sanchez, a friend of the student.
Outside at the memorial, teenagers leaned on each other, sharing memories, painting, getting through the days. But still, “I felt incredibly powerless,” said Lily Kung, another classmate.
Nationwide, a mental health crisis among teenagers has long been brewing. By 2019, approximately 1 in 6 students said they had made a suicide plan in the past year, up 44% from a decade ago, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
For some, the COVID-19 pandemic made the crisis more acute.
From May to December 2020, 651 children received emergency mental health care at Oakland Benioff Children’s Hospital, a 76% increase from the previous year. The number of suicides for California youth ages 10 to 18 increased in 2020, even as the total number of suicides in the state declined. The U.S. surgeon general issued a public advisory calling the challenges faced by today’s generation “unprecedented” and the impact on their mental health “devastating.”
For Berkeley High students, too, the costs of the pandemic — the isolation it wrought and the anxiety that followed — were enormous.
“I feel like it’s nearly a universal experience a lot of people in my generation have, to talk someone down from the edge,” Adams said. “During the pandemic, I had that happen a lot, I think two or three times. And then you get some random texts from that same person and you’re worried all over again.”
At 17 years old, Adams had already supported multiple friends through psychotic episodes, delusions, suicidal ideation and psychiatric hospitalization, and she says she’s far from alone in this experience.
After passing several days on the sidewalk, resolve took root for five friends, all seniors — Ginger Boswell, Haley Goetting and Mary Calderon Sanchez along with Kung and Adams. They vowed to bring more money and resources for mental health to their school.
By school’s end, the city council and school board devoted more than $1 million to increasing mental health services next year. And while only part of that spending was the direct result of their advocacy — much was in the works already — the students brought the issue to the attention of elected officials and helped shape some of the funding decisions.
“In a way, we were converting our grief into something meaningful,” Calderon Sanchez said.
‘We are under-resourcing mental health’
With crises more common and therapists in short supply, teens are increasingly relying on one another for support through even the most profound mental health emergencies.
“The world is a scary place and there’s a lot of things happening right at this moment, so we need more people to support us. And as much as I appreciate the peer-to-peer support, it’s not enough,” Kung said. “We shouldn’t have to be the adults,” added Calderon Sanchez.
Berkeley High is one of 200 schools in California that provide mental health care through their own health centers. Such care can decrease suicidal ideation and attempts.
In a needs assessment published in 2017, Berkeley High’s center was praised for its dedicated staff and seen as a valuable resource. But the report also identified problems, many of the same ones that students raised this spring.
Students said that the health center is insufficiently staffed for all the students who need therapy and that it lacks preventative services. They said that when students do show up, they’re often asked if it’s an emergency and then, if the answer is no, asked to wait a few weeks. Some also said it was poorly publicized — that many students hardly know where the center is located or that they can get counseling there.
The BHS health center is staffed with three full-time therapists, who serve students with MediCal insurance, though students with private insurance can receive counseling for six sessions. There are a few counseling interns, too.
“We don’t focus enough on mental wellness and how we can work together to prevent and or recognize those problems early,” said Lisa Warhuus, the city of Berkeley’s director of health, housing and community services.
In 2004, California passed an income tax specifically for mental health care — the 2004 Mental Health Services Act — which taxes people with an income of over $1 million. The money, which pays for the Berkeley High health center and other public mental health services, is supposed to prioritize moderate to severe illness.
Warhuus, who grew up in Berkeley and attended the city’s schools, said she remembers similar “gaps in support.” Then she said she watched her children experience the same “limited access” to mental health care in the public schools.
“That’s not specific to Berkeley,” Warhuus said. “But as a community and as a state, we’re really under-resourcing mental health and wellness support. Significantly.”
Teens push for action
Moni Law’s office downtown is next door to the memorial for the student who died. When the city housing counselor stepped outside during an afternoon break recently, she saw a group of students gathered nearby. The next day, she approached them with cups and a pitcher of ginger tea.
Right away, the teenagers took to Law, who is affectionately called Aunty Moni or Mama Moni. A regular participant in city government and an ad-hoc mentor to dozens of UC Berkeley students, Law pairs compassion with a penchant for action.
“I’m the kind of person who, when I see a problem, I don’t just ignore it and hope somebody else deals with it or just makes it go away,” Law said. “No, no, no, no. These kids are suffering right here. I see them outside every day. If not me, who?”
The teenagers told Law they were frustrated their teachers were not more understanding as they grieved. The school had made more therapists available but, save for a few exceptions, the homework assignments hadn’t slowed down. And it was nothing new: “Often students feel like their needs are kind of dismissed or not taken seriously by their teachers,” said Boswell, also a friend of the student who died.
They wanted to start a petition calling for mental health training for teachers. Law explained the nuts and bolts of how to write one. Within hours, the students had collected a few hundred signatures. From there, the advocacy snowballed.
Conducting an informal survey of the student body, they found:
- Nearly 90% of students report that school-related factors have caused their mental health to decline.
- 68% of students report that they have to put in a lot of effort to receive help.
- 57% of students stated they would feel more supported if there were more on-site therapists.
- Only 17% of students reported teachers, counselors or staff checking in on them regarding their mental health.
The teens shared these findings with Berkeley Vice Mayor Kate Harrison and spoke about their experiences at city council meetings.
What they described alarmed the Vice Mayor. “I just felt it was a crime,” said Harrison, who is intimately aware of the dire consequences that a lack of mental health intervention can have. “In my own personal case, the person had issues when they were a teenager, and many, many, many years later [died by] suicide, because the problems were not dealt with adequately.”
The teenagers also showed Harrison a budget proposal to hire a mental health coordinator for the high school, which Harrison introduced to the council shortly after. The proposal passed this summer.
Students acknowledge that by the standards of most public high schools, Berkeley has a lot to offer in terms of mental health care. The problem is, it’s not enough.
“There’s little to no understanding of the depth of the problem that young people are facing when… they want to end their life,” Law said. “What should we be doing differently, so these lives aren’t lost?” Law asked. “We just have to do better.”
Improvements to mental health care planned for next year
The students hope to leave their school a little better than they found it.
They don’t have everything figured out, but they envision more counselors, or at least more counseling interns, a revival of a peer-to-peer mental health education program and training for teachers on helping students cope with mental health. The students have wrangled some underclassmen to start a club dedicated to improving student mental health next year.
Three of the teens — Goetting, Boswell and Adams — have siblings who will be entering ninth grade at Berkeley High.
Next year, Warhuus said, the plan is to do a comprehensive assessment and plan strategically to improve the city and district’s long-term approach to youth mental health. “Trying to throw services at the system and see what sticks isn’t a good approach and it doesn’t achieve collective impact,” Warhuus said.
So far, here’s how BUSD will spend funds on mental health care for the 2022-23 school year:
- Hire a mental health coordinator (the students helped write the budget for this specifically)
- Employ at least one counselor full time at each elementary school (some schools received part-time services)
- Add more individual and group mental health care
- Provide counseling for students filing complaints with the Title IX office
- Commit to spend $500,000 in COVID-19 relief money, which the school board set aside for mental health last year but the district never spent
The students are hopeful that their advocacy will lead to real change, but they’re wary of leaders’ short attention spans.
“The school is acting like they care a lot right now because, I mean, we just had a tragedy happen. But one of my concerns is that it’ll just kind of blow over,” Boswell said.
Kung agrees. She said that teenagers’ biggest fear is that their classmates, teachers and elected officials will forget what happened.
“We don’t want to move on,” Calderon Sanchez said.