So Johnson and two other Albemarle County students, Alexander Moreno and Choetsow Tenzin, sought to fix that. They lobbied for more mental health resources in their schools before setting their aim higher: a law requiring mental health instruction for Virginia’s ninth- and 10th-graders.
The legislation sailed through the House and Senate and was signed into law by Gov. Ralph Northam (D) last month.
National statistics align with the students’ experience: Up to 1 in 5 adolescents between the ages of 13 and 18 live with a mental disorder, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A study published in the March issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry found that half of U.S. children who receive mental health services get them at school.
The Albemarle teens hope to reduce the stigma they said surrounds seeking help for mental health. They also want to better equip students with skills and resources to cope with mental health struggles.
“We know how private and how difficult it can be to deal with a mental illness, and we know that people are not going to always want to talk about what they’re going through,” Moreno said. “But we do want to make it okay for people who are going through something . . . to go and seek out resources.”
It will be up to Virginia’s Board of Education to determine how the mental health mandate is carried out, but, under the law, the board must consult with mental health experts and update state standards.
Moreno and Tenzin first tackled the topic at a summer institute for high school students at the University of Virginia. They felt the issue was too pressing to let fade.
“The problem itself is very real,” said Tenzin, who attends Albemarle High School. “We deal with it daily, in our own schools.”
The pair teamed with Johnson, who also participated in the institute, and worked through the fall and winter, holing up in coffee shops to plan.
The students first focused on countywide initiatives, working to ensure resources addressing substance abuse, relationship violence and other issues were better publicized.
They pushed Albemarle Public Schools Superintendent Pam Moran to include $160,000 in next year’s proposed budget to add a mental health professional to the school system.
In the fall, the school district will introduce a freshman seminar intended to help students navigate issues that may arise during high school — a seminar shaped with input from the three students.
“Mental health is critical in a day and age where our young people have all kinds of forces in play in their lives that can create levels of stress, anxiety,” Moran said.
The teenagers caught the attention of state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Charlottesville), who has focused on improving the state’s mental health system since he was stabbed by his mentally ill son, who then killed himself.
Deeds, struck by the students’ empathy, knowledge and research, sponsored a Senate version of the students’ bill. Del. Rob Bell (R-Albemarle) introduced a companion bill in the House.
“When young people are at that age when there’s a lot of bullying, when they get it and they understand, I want to encourage that,” Deeds said. “We focus so much on the physical health, we forget the brain is part of the body, too.”
Charles Pyle, a state Education Department spokesman, noted that the state’s Standards of Learning already include some mental health education but also said that the law provides an opportunity for the state to revisit those standards and identify gaps.
Johnson, the Monticello student, said the current standards only touch on mental health and aren’t comprehensive.
The Albemarle County students have their own ideas for what they would like to see emerge from the law. They want to understand the science behind mental health, let students know where they can turn in times of trouble and shed negative connotations associated with talking about mental well-being.
“The problem isn’t that students are doing too much,” said Moreno, a senior at Western Albemarle High School. “The problem is that students are doing too much, and they don’t have individuals in place that can help them deal with the stress and anxiety that come with that. A bad day turns into a bad week and turns into a bad month.”