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Op-Ed: Lifelines help prevent teen suicide

July 6, 2019
In The News

Martha is an 18-year-old Latina college student from La Puente. She studies part-time and works part-time to support herself and her family. As the first in her family to attend college, she is a great source of pride for her loved ones. Yet, had a concerned friend not asked Martha if she was OK, we could be telling a very different story.

Martha went through a stage of darkness when she came to terms with her sexuality at age 15. She felt confused, fearful, guilty, sad, and lonely, as many LGBTQ youth do. “I felt like I was doing something wrong, so I did not want to face anyone,” she said. Martha isolated herself, avoiding social and family events. She turned to alcohol for comfort and to suppress her reality and feelings. When she finally did tell her family, she was rejected. This devastated her. She thought there was no hope for her future. It was then that she considered suicide.

But out of this darkness came a light in the form of a close friend, who reached out to her, understood her and supported her. Drawing on her own experiences, this friend recommended she seek mental health services, which were available at no cost at her high school. Seeing a trained clinician allowed Martha to reflect on who she was and who she wanted to be. She learned how to better communicate with her family, whose involvement in therapy was critical and brought her hope for her future. She says that anyone who may be struggling with self-identity and mental health-related issues should speak up, find help and get professional assistance for the sake of themselves and their family.

Stories like Martha’s echo across our region and nation, yet fearing judgment from classmates and family members, young people too often suffer in silence and solitude. A new survey conducted by the Trevor Project of more than 34,000 LGBTQ youth participants found that 39% of respondents seriously considered attempting suicide within the past year. Drugs, as in Martha’s case, become self-medication because many LGBTQ youth do not know how to express themselves. These issues, however, are not limited to the LGBTQ community. Mental illness does not discriminate: it affects all of us regardless of age, race, class, gender and sexual orientation.

Eighteen years ago, I secured federal funding to begin to seriously address the issue, placing local mental health provider Pacific Clinics in one high school and three middle schools; one of these schools was Martha’s. While resistant at first, teachers, school administrators and parents began to see the tremendous benefit to students. When funding expired in 2009, Los Angeles County began to cover the cost. Thanks to its steadfast support, we have reduced stigma, saved countless lives and expanded the program to 35 schools throughout the San Gabriel Valley and southeast Los Angeles County.

Last month I led a visit with U.S. Reps. Nanette Barragán and Alan Lowenthal, County Supervisor Kathryn Barger and Director of Mental Health Dr. Jonathan Sherin, to two schools in La Puente that have implemented the program, including Martha’s school. We heard stories much like hers, bringing us all to tears. Teachers and school administrators praised the structure and effectiveness of the school-based youth suicide prevention program, while students shared testimony on how after sitting down with someone they trusted, their self-esteem rose, family relationships became stronger and academic performances improved.

My new legislation, the Mental Health Services for Students Act (HR1109) would fund on-site mental health services, like those administered in our area by Pacific Clinics, in schools nationwide. Passing HR1109 is an important step to help ensure our future leaders have every opportunity to succeed. With National Pride Month having just passed, I want to speak directly to youth like Martha: You are not alone. Support is available. If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).