Our bodies are our vehicles to achieve our dreams. It is in our best interest to prioritize physical and mental health. Still, a recent survey — designed by two Berkeley High School juniors, Abby Steckel and Ruby Spies, and analyzed by myself and my Community Health Commission, or CHC, colleague, Dr. Marilyn Wong — revealed that 58 percent of BHS students experience mental health challenges. Within some subgroups, the percentage is as high as 75 percent.
Is this data shocking and upsetting? My colleagues on the CHC were startled by the results. When I told my classmates, however, they simply nodded, accustomed to watching their friends struggle with anxiety and depression. It appears that teens have normalized stress, along with the self-destructive coping mechanisms that many resort to in the absence of services. Watching my peers break down, have panic attacks, self-harm and use drugs, afraid to seek help for fear of being shamed or stigmatized, drove me to organize an assembly on mental health. I did not know of any adults on campus who specifically addressed the lack of awareness or encouraged students to talk about mental health openly and to access services.
More than 300 students attended this event at BHS, and the assembly generated a great deal of interest and feedback. I, along with Steckel and Spies, decided to assess students’ perceived need for mental health services on campus through a survey in order to plan effective next steps.
In February and March of this year, the survey was distributed to several classes at BHS, garnering 241 student responses and representing all grades and small learning communities. There was an almost perfect match in the racial composition of the survey participants and that of the BHS population at large.
The survey sought feedback on questions regarding students’ mental health needs, knowledge about campus mental health resources and perception of the mental health culture on campus.
We asked whether participants felt a need for support around mental and emotional struggles. Fifty-eight percent of the survey participants answered yes, indicating that more than half of BHS students self-identify mental and emotional challenges.
Further analysis also highlighted each sub-group’s perception of need. According to the data, male-identified Latinx students feel that they don’t have a need for mental health services, which raises the question: do these students only believe there is no need or is there, in fact, no clinical need? Among the male-identified survey takers, Black students expressed the most need; among the female-identified survey takers, Asian American students expressed the most need. However, these responses may be influenced by culture and stigma — they are not a clinical assessment of mental health needs.
The most alarming result was that among those who self-identified as having mental health needs, 56 percent did not access care. Across the board, males tend not to seek care and with regards to racial demographics; 75 percent of Black, white and Asian American males did not access care when they felt that they needed it. This report shows a tremendous need to understand why students, especially males, are not seeking care when they are struggling.
There is much work that needs to be done to further analyze the current data and to obtain more information on why such a high percentage of students perceive a need for services but are not seeking care.
Some students suggested that a peer mental health educator program — outlined in a proposal coming before City Council on June 13 — would be helpful in promoting dialogue, identifying symptoms and accessing care.
A student anonymously told us that “(they’ve) learned more about teen pregnancy than mental health (their) whole time in high school and think that’s awful considering so many more teens suffer from mental health issues than from teen pregnancy.”
“I’ve gone to the health center so many times when I’m not doing too good and they rush me out there and say they’ll check in and never do,” said another student. “I’ve learned to deal with a lot of shit on my own by missing school and trying to do some self-care. For friends I’ve talked to about this, missing school is normally their solution too. Just sucks that we have these resources on campus but they aren’t doing what they say they’re gonna do or just aren’t helpful.”
Although many studies have evaluated the prevalence of stress and mental health disorders among high school students, this recent survey framed the issue in a local context. It revealed a great need to clinically evaluate the mental health of BHS students and to further understand why students are reluctant to seek care.
For Berkeley, the time to take action is now, not after we have our own suicide cluster. Youth mental well-being should be prioritized to ensure that everyone has a chance to lead a healthy life.
Athena Chin is a senior at Berkeley High School. She will be attending Barnard College in the fall.
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