Young people are speaking out about their experiences with mental illness and substance misuse, and many are eager to shape solutions to a growing crisis. Youth with lived experiences of mental illness and substance use challenges, including addiction, understand first-hand the limitations, inequities, and failures of the current system. This Mental Health Awareness Month, policymakers are actively working to address this issue, and it’s critical that youth with lived experience are meaningfully engaged. 

By working with young people with lived experience through a youth advisory board, Community Catalyst has learned important lessons about root causes, barriers to care, and what matters most to youth when accessing services – including BIPOC and LGBTQ+ youth. These lessons are informing our federal advocacy as we engage policymakers who are actively drafting legislation related to youth mental health.  

Additionally, Community Catalyst’s state partners in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Georgia, and California have been using youth engagement strategies to inform their advocacy and to elevate youth voice to state policymakers. Here are examples of those strategies:  

  • Supporting Youth-Led Advocacy Campaigns: In addition to their Youth Advisory Board, the California School Based Health Alliance (CSHA) launched a project to build the power of high school students – particularly low-income students of color – to improve their schools’ response to youth substance use. The project trains youth on substance use prevention and advocacy using CSHA’s Youth Health Worker Curriculum and supports the development of youth-led campaigns to change school policy, as determined by the young people involved 

  • Elevating Youth Voice to Influence State PolicyChange: As part of their campaign to expand youth Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral to Treatment (SBIRT) in New Jersey schools, Salvation and Social Justice and New Jersey Citizen Action have worked together to engage youth – particularly Black youth and other youth of color – in conversations about what matters most to them. These conversations led to a series of videos and a social media takeover that elevated young people’s voices as they advocated to replace all punitive responses to youth substance use in schools with meaningful services and support.  

  • Focus Groups to Build on Previous Wins: After winning a state mandate to implement youth SBIRT in all public middle and high schools, the Massachusetts Children’s Mental Health Campaign is engaging young people in conversations about how they experience the program. These focus groups will aim to better understand how school-based SBIRT can be improved, especially for BIPOC and LGBTQ+ students who often experience unique barriers to affirming care in schools and the broader health care system.  

  • Story Sharing and Zine Creation: The Center for Pan Asian Community Services (CPACS) in Georgia developed an eight-week program to support students – primarily Asian and Latino students – in sharing their stories about mental illness and substance misuse. This work culminated in a zine where students paired written pieces with pictures and art to illuminate the impact of mental illness and addiction on themselves and their communities. This work is being shared with policymakers and health advocates in Georgia to build support for the expansion of youth services and broader improvements to the behavioral health system.  

There are numerous ways to include youth in health advocacy campaigns, and many opportunities to invest in youth leadership. As we commemorate Mental Health Awareness month, let’s amplify solutions that reflect the voices of those with lived experience. Doing so could help policymakers in states and the federal government improve the current system and build a better future for everyone.