Young people recently shared their personal stories and experiences with mental illness – with peers, but also policy makers and elected officials – during Multnomah County’s second-ever Youth Mental Health Forum.
The May 21 forum, sponsored by Commissioner Sharon Meieran, gave young people ages 13 to 21 a chance to identify the critical mental health issues they’re facing, the barriers they face when trying to access services and possible solutions to overcome those barriers. Youth attended from across the region, representing districts including Portland Public Schools, Beaverton School District, Gresham-Barlow School District, and others.
The event included a resource fair, along with three affinity spaces where young people could share with one another: one for BIPOC youth, one for LGBTQ+ youth and an open youth group for any youth inclined to participate.
“This is a space for youth and those are the voices that we want to center today,” said Jason Anajovich, a youth leader at the forum, the first since 2020. Anajovich, who returned as emcee, is a sophomore at the University of Oregon.
This year, the event was held in-person and virtually. About 80 young people and adults gathered in downtown Portland, joined by 10 virtual participants.
Commissioner Meieran said the forum provides an opportunity to learn from youth and inform public policy around mental health access and care. She stressed the importance of giving young people a space to share their experiences.
“I wish I had something like this to share my story and reduce the stigma,” she said, sharing that she has suffered from depression and anxiety for as long as she can remember and that it was not something she recognized when she was younger.
U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici said she was “deeply concerned about the stress and challenges youth are facing today.”
She listed long-term social isolation in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, abrupt pauses in daily routines, and drastic changes in school instruction as just a few of the adjustments youth have had to make in the past two years. Those challenges have made mental healthcare for young people more important than ever, she said.
“We have to transform how mental health is understood, how it’s accessed, how it’s treated. And we have to address the stigma – no one should feel ashamed or embarrassed or afraid to ask for help,” said Rep. Bonamici, arguing that mental and behavioral health should be treated the same as physical health.
Rep. Bonamici said the experiences shared during the forum can help Congress members and policymakers make the case for new investments and programs that can expand access to behavioral health services for students and young people.
That includes one of her own bill’s, the RISE Act, which would require institutions of higher education to provide incoming students with existing documentation of a disability access to disability accommodations.
“Sharing your stories is very important. It’s much more important than listening to policy discussion in the abstract,” she said.
Portland Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty said it was important to bring youth’s unfiltered voices to rooms where decisions are being made that impact their lives.
“Use your collective voice and tell those of us in elected office what you need,” she said.
Jenny Duan, a senior at Jesuit High School, shared her passion for mental health resources, access and equity. Duan remembered when her sister’s middle school banned the word “suicide,” raising concerns for herself, her sister and her peers about stigma.
“Stigma really prevents youth from having the courage and the opportunity to seek help,” Duan said.
This pivotal moment drove Duan to create and lead a Mental Health Awareness club at her high school. Since then, the club has grown to more than 100 members.
Jesse Fonseca, a senior at Centennial High School who participated in the last mental health forum as a table facilitator, spoke about creating a space where youth have a sense of belonging. Fonseca encouraged students to share their stories and experiences to create solutions.
“Use your voice to make our community a more positive space to be,” Fonseca said.
The forum featured small group table talks, with each group assigned a facilitator. Peer to peer, young people answered questions about youth mental health services and any barriers to accessing them.
Claire C., a freshman at Jesuit High School, said parents’ lack of understanding about mental health can keep some youths from receiving services. “When a lot of parents are not educated about mental health, it’s really hard to help their children,” she said, “and that can be hard to open up.”
Emily A., a Skyview High School senior and Multnomah Youth Commissioner, said her table talked about ways to overcome barriers, including direct and proactive outreach from professionals.
“Schools expect us to be the ones to reach out, when in reality it is incredibly helpful to have counselors and mental health resources come to us first,” she said.
Among the policymakers who attended were County Commissioner Lori Stegmann; State Sen. Lew Frederick; State Reps. Maxine Dexter and Lisa Reynolds; David Douglas School Board Member Aaron Barrow; board members Herman Greene and Amy Kohnstamm of Portland Public Schools; Parkrose School Board Member Cayle Tern; Multnomah Education Service District Board Member Denyse Peterson; and Reynolds School Board Member Francisco Ibarra.
Commissioner Meieran’s office hosted 11 organizations for the resource fair that followed the forum, including the Multnomah County Health Department, the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, the Multnomah Youth Commission, YouthLine, the Mental Health and Addiction Association of Oregon, Work2BeWell, Project Lotus, the National Alliance on Mental Illness-Multnomah, Portland Opportunities Industrialization Center + Rosemary Anderson High School, Portland Parks and Recreation, and Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste.
Commissioner Meieran said, “this whole event was youth-driven and youth-led, about what barriers they’re facing and what we can do better – that is the goal.”