Throughout the month of May we will be taking a break from our usual weekly news round up to bring you The Weekly Mashup: Special Edition! Each Friday, in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, we’ll be highlighting our favorite resources, campaigns and organizations that are a part of the movement to make mental health a priority!
Youth Voice Rings Truest: Lessons from CMHACY
by Annabelle Gardner, Director of Communications
Every May, children’s mental health advocates meet in the tranquil beach town of Pacific Grove for the California Mental Health Advocates for Children and Youth (CMHACY) Conference. Clinicians, program administrators, faith leaders, advocates, youth, and parents from all over the state gather at the edge of the beautiful Asilomar State Beach to learn, network, and collaborate on how to better serve youth and families with mental health needs. I’ve had the opportunity to attend CMHACY for the past two years and find the location, participants, and overall energy of the conference incredibly inspiring. What follows are some highlights from my experience this year.
Since 1980, CMHACY’s mission has been “to expand the coalition of individuals in California who work to improve the lives of children and families with mental, emotional, and behavioral challenges.” The conference spans three days and this year boasted over 500 attendees and almost 40 different workshops with topics from trauma-informed care to mental health parity to mindful self-compassion.
This year I was lucky enough to help out at the pre-conference “Youth Leadership Academy” lead by Youth In Mind (YIM), a youth-led mental health advocacy organization based in Alameda. Youth leaders from across the state came together to participate in activities that infused psychosocial wellness with youth engagement and leadership development.
On Tuesday evening, Young Minds’ communications coordinator, Helen, and I helped facilitate small focus groups where youth answered questions about their personal experience with mental health challenges and YIM’s programming. Questions like “How do you define mental health wellness” and “Does advocacy work empower you? How so?” We were blown away by the young people’s insightful answers, openness in sharing their personal experiences, and their genuine support for each other. One youth said, “Being here, at this conference, it is empowering because you’re going to learn something here and it’s going to stick with you. It might help change other people’s lives. What we learn here, we’re going to pass on. This is taking a step in leadership.”
The following morning we joined YIM for a workshop called Youth Voice in Policy. Participants identified common barriers youth face when getting involved in policy-level advocacy. These barriers included:
- Limited accountability of mental health programs;
- Limited or no youth input in policy decisions; and
- When youth are involved, they often feel tokenized, or invited to meetings to “represent youth” without actually being included in policy discussions.
The youth leaders also shared recommendations for how decision makers could increase authentic youth inclusion in the creation, reformation, and implementation of policies and programs. These recommendations included:
- Creating a youth committee;
- Increasing diversity in the leadership so that programs more accurately represent who they are serving;
- Not just listening to youth voices, but actually putting youth ideas into action;
- Using language that everyone can understand at policy meetings rather than a jumble of acronyms; and
- Changing meeting times so that more youth can attend.
At Young Minds, we believe that authentic engagement of youth and families in policy decisions is essential to improving the mental health system. Unfortunately, as the youth at CMHACY highlighted, youth voices are often undervalued or ignored. I think this is due, in part, to decision makers underestimating what young people are capable of. The truth is youth are experts–experts of their own experience. Experts in what they and their family need; Experts in what isn’t working and why, and often, what could work better. We need to do a better job of including young people as partners in improving the system that exists to meet their needs.
My hope is that we, as the youth mental health community, can build off of the ideas and connections that came out of CMHACY. Creating opportunities for youth to get more involved in policy would be a great place to start.