Student Activists Enabled a New Legislature

Student Activists

Gov. Kate Brown supported this great win of the Oregon teens and signed the bill which allows Oregon students to have another reason for excused school absence — mental behavioral health.

The students standing behind this measure state that they had only one intention — to remove a stigma surrounding mental health, especially since the state of Oregon has one of the highest suicide rates in the U.S.

Halley Hardcastle, an 18-year old student, helped push through the mental health bill and stated that she was partly motivated by the national youth-led movement that followed last year’s school shooting. 

She stated that after that horrifying event, the youth realized that young people could be involved in political conversation and change its course. Hardcastle added that this bill was coming from a youth perspective and that the measure was drafted to encourage the kids to admit when they were struggling. 

Debbie Plotnik, the vice president of the nonprofit group Mental Health America, stated that this was an essential step towards a more tolerant community that safely approached mental health issues. 

She listed troubling data in the State of Oregon. The second leading cause of death in the age of 10–34 is suicide. Around 17% of young students aged from 10–14 stated that they had been seriously contemplating suicide in the past 12 months. 

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, this is more than just the state’s problem. It is a nationwide concern. In their latest report, the national suicide rate has been on the rise, hitting a worrying 30% increase since 1999. 

The hope the students are driven by is that the introduction of this legislature will lead to more of those. 

Chriss Bouneff, the executive director of the National Mental Health Alliance in Oregon, stated that this bill was all about the recognition of mental health disorders that had a real impact on students and their families. 

He added that mental health disorders were prevalent and that most of us had dealt with this in our families or have had friends who struggled with mental health problems and the stigma surrounding them. The goal is to reduce that stigma and to raise awareness of the students’ issues. If their parents are more aware of the problems their kids are struggling with, both them and the school will be able to open doors to more sincere conversations and form an active support group. Lastly, he added that he hoped that this legislation would help in growing awareness about the prevalence of mental disorders nationwide. 

However, some experts are not supporting this legislature, and there have been many public discussions on this matter.

Even though this legislature was thought out by a group of ambitious and well-meaning Oregonian students, it seems to have been poorly executed. 

There are many articles online actively opposing the subject that list some valid points. 

For instance, many disagree on the statement that mental health issues are the same as a broken bone or a physical illness. 

D.J. Jaffe, the writer of mental illness policy for the Manhattan Institute, has stated that he admires these ambitious young students. However, he thinks they have made a few mistakes when creating this bill. 

According to him, the distinction between a mental health issue and a bona fide mental illness is critical. Acutely suicidal, manic depressive, and other students suffering from severe symptoms should be allowed to miss classes to attend to the symptoms of their conditions. However, Plotnik included the students with stress, poor self-esteem, and momentary sadness in the same group, naming it mental health issues.

He went on to explain that the mental health policies could be an elusive concept since social goals of the state included the mental health narrative — improving grades, ending poverty, helping individuals gain gender identity, and decreasing rates of bullying. 

Jaffe stated that if Plotnik had used the term “mental illness,” she would have been able to get to the point and avoid further implications of using the wrong term. He said that he thought she should’ve done more research on the subject and made a list of other conditions that contained a biological component. Doing that, she could’ve made them similar to physical illness. Unfortunately, she used the wrong term — mental health.

He continued talking about the very premise of the bill. He stated that he wholeheartedly agreed that something needed to be done in regards to growing suicide rates present among the teens. However, he believes that this is the way to do it. He couldn’t help but wonder if, for example, a kid was having problems with self-esteem and was unable to adequately express their feelings, it would be helpful to allow them to skip the history class? Jaffe believes that this is not the way to build someone’s self-esteem by telling them they are not ‘“strong enough” to attend his classes.

D.J. Jaffe risked being attacked by the community and committed more to the subject. He said that he entirely agreed with some parts of the bill — if the kid was showing suicidal symptoms, they certainly shouldn’t be in classes, but in hospital. 

However, he suggested that, if a teen was not suffering from any kind of mental disorder, such as major depressive disorder, severe anxiety, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia, they should go through some sort of further examination. This would cause the authorities to pay more attention to those who really need help, since, with this bill, the government might hurt the ones who actually suffer from a mental illness while turning their focus on less significant issues. 

According to Jaffe, this mental health mania that swept the United States resulted in the situations where skillful psychiatrists focused their skills on emotional wellness instead of on the people who were severely mentally ill. 

He suggests that the bill should be entirely modified so that the students who, luckily, don’t suffer from mental health disorders but show signs of suicidal behavior are treated in a properly. This implies more commitment from parents and school staff and more “activistic approach” towards more realistic and beneficial ideas. Some of them are the introduction of more psychiatrists in the school organization and more efficient campaigns about school bullying, which he considered to be the central part of the initial problem. 

Lastly, he saluted well-meaning Oregonian students for their efforts to stop the stigma surrounding mental health disorders and wished them all the luck in modifying this bill and achieving their goals. 

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