3 Va. Students Change How Mental Health Is Addressed in High Schools

Three Virginia high school students made their voices heard and got some pretty big results in the area of mental health.

Choetsow Tenzin, Lukas Johnson and Alex Moreno are high school seniors in Albemarle County, Virginia, who met last summer at a program for young leaders.

“There's a lot of emphasis on depression or anxiety, but there are so many different types of mental illnesses that people struggle with,” Tenzin said.

They researched and interviewed other students. Then they lobbied for extra money for mental health counselors for Albemarle County high schools, which had two mental health professionals for 4,000 students.

“The problem with having a part-time mental health counselor is the fact that mental health doesn’t take a day off,” Moreno said.

In the fall, Albemarle County will have two more full-time counselors.

“This is a great example of students leading the way,” Deputy Superintendent Matthew Haas said. “That Alex, Choetsow and Lukas are at three different high schools, they connected in their own network, they determined a need that our high schools have around student mental health.”

The students have had their own experiences with mental health problems.

“Something I don't like to disclose to people is I struggled with my own mental health earlier in my life,” Tenzin said.

“This is hitting me now,” Johnson said. “Someone I know is seriously contemplating killing herself.”

Determined to continue making a difference, the three aimed higher.

“On the state level, we worked on a bill that was designed to increase the amount of mental health education high school students have in the ninth and 10th grade classes in the Commonwealth of Virginia,” Moreno said.

The students said, and the school district confirmed, of 100 health topics discussed in ninth grade health class, only 15 points addressed mental health. In 10th grade, just two out of 100.

The legislation the students proposed requiring better mental health instruction for ninth and 10th graders sailed through the state House and Senate. Gov. Ralph Northam signed it into law in March.

“When we originally started, we were thinking, if we’re really lucky, the county might listen, maybe they'll allocate some money, maybe that’ll happen,” Johnson said. “And now we're here and we’re, like, wow, we had such small dreams back then.”

They see it as just the beginning.

“First stepping stone in a long journey,” Tenzin said.

New York is the only other state that has a similar law.

The students are all going to college — two at the University of Virginia and one at Bowdoin College in Maine — but they plan to keep working on this together.

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