At town hall, student question about mental health yields different answers from local lawmakers

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Periodically throughout the Washington State legislature’s sessions, lawmakers return to their respective districts to report back on legislative progress and listen to constituents. Over the weekend of February 22-23, there was a particularly heavy concentration of these town halls across the state. I attended one for the 45th legislative district (where I live) held at the Lake Washington Institute of Technology in Kirkland.

The forum featured State Senator Manka Dhingra (D-Redmond), State Representative Roger Goodman (D-Kirkland), and State Representative Larry Springer (D-Kirkland). By way of background, in 2018 I worked as an intern for Senator Dhingra’s re-election campaign. Through that work and other advocacy I’ve done in Olympia, I’ve also gotten to know Representatives Goodman and Springer.

If you’ve never attended a legislative forum, I’d encourage you to try to go to one. Upon arrival you’re usually greeted by legislative staff who work for the lawmakers. Legislative staffers work incredibly hard behind the scenes to make sure everything runs smoothly. They are knowledgeable on the Xs and Os of proposed legislation and can be a great resource for your advocacy efforts.

The forum was well-attended although I was one of only a few students in attendance. However, student/children’s interests were represented in the form of elected school board members from the Lake Washington and Northshore school districts, and several voters brought up a variety of issues relating to students and children. Also in attendance were numerous local elected officials. Of course, most attendees were not elected; they simply were residents who desired information or wanted to share their views. And while the three lawmakers are all Democrats, reactions from those in attendance during the question and answer session revealed a room that was politically split.  

From left to right: State Rep. Larry Springer (D-Kirkland), State Rep. Roger Goodman (D-Kirkland) and State Sen. Manka Dhingra (D-Redmond)

Sen. Dhingra and Reps. Goodman and Springer kicked things off with brief introductory speeches, explaining who they were, what committees they were on, and their legislative priorities for the session. Next, they answered selected questions from note cards people in the audience had submitted earlier. Then a significant chunk of the remaining time was spent answering “open mic” questions from the audience. The topics of inquiry were incredibly wide-ranging, from taxes to schools to transportation, and the answers were perhaps even more so. The topics of whether and how comprehensive sex education should be taught in schools and abortion/reproductive rights were ones that elicited the most emotions from participants.

I also was able to ask a question about mental health support in schools that all three legislators ended up answering. The full transcript of that is below.

Overall, I felt it was a worthwhile event because it presented a unique opportunity to hear different perspectives from lawmakers on politically important issues. It also was instructive to hear how local members of our community feel about the same topics.

If you would like to attend a town hall in your district, you can visit your legislators’ websites and the information will usually be there. 

The below transcript has been slightly edited for clarity.

Kellen Hoard: My high school Inglemoor has the International Baccalaureate program, which is a pretty academically rigorous program, and combined with social pressures that are present in every school, there are pretty high levels of mental health issues: anxiety, depression, and all of that.  So, I’m wondering, specifically for schools, what in your ideal world would you improve in terms of mental health, especially taking into account the shortage of counselors?

Sen. Dhingra: Thank you for that question. You know, I have kids that go to Redmond High School, and we unfortunately at Redmond High School had a suicide of a student earlier this school year. I also think we don’t need to necessarily replicate services, I would love to see the treatment providers that we have in our community collaborate with our schools in order to provide holistic services and care. We already have some of that happening in some of our schools, but it’s not something that is done consistently in all of them. But I would love to see those partnerships develop further. The reason why I think those partnerships are the way to go is because when these agencies come into the schools, they can provide holistic care as well as care for families that the schools might not necessarily be able to provide. From a different point of view, we are also trying to do a lot with adverse childhood experiences in our schools, making sure that our schools know who the children are, that they are taken care of, and what issues they may be dealing with. When you open up a kindergarten classroom, and all these happy, young little kids come running in, we need to know: are some of these kids seeing domestic violence at home? Do some of them have parents who are incarcerated? Do some of them have parents who are maybe doing drugs? The reason why we need to know these things is so that we can support them accordingly, to make sure that we are able to have an environment for them where they are learning and where we can take care of those issues so they don’t become larger than life and don’t result in tragedies. So, absolutely I think counselors in schools is a good idea, but I think partnering with agencies in our neighborhoods that provide that service is also very important.  

Rep. Springer: We often look at wanting to add counselors in schools, primarily in middle school and high school. I’m a former elementary school teacher, and it occurs to me that if we had a few more teachers at the elementary level, you would identify some of those adverse childhood experiences when a child is five, six, seven, 10, or 12 years old. You would not be waiting until they are 18, which would probably be a good thing.    

Rep. Goodman: Self-reported mental illness among students in high school in our area is about 40 percent. There is anxiety and depression, particularly among girls. We had a hearing looking at the use of smartphones and social media, and the extent to which that exacerbates anxiety and depression, particularly in girls. Guys tend to be gamers, and that actually is a good thing. There is hand-eye coordination and then there is also a community of gamers. But the girls tend to be isolated, and there is more bullying. They are posting a picture hoping for a response and hoping for affirmation. The interesting research that we found is that it is not the technology or social media that is causing the problem; it’s the extent of use. If you don’t have a smartphone at all, you feel quite isolated, and that leads to anxiety and depression. If you have a smartphone and you are moderately using it, you feel a sense of connection, and it actually enhances relationships and provides for emotional and psychological stability. But excessive use creates anxiety and depression, so it is sort of a U-curve.  

Editor’s Note: Kellen Hoard, a sophomore at Inglemoor High School in the Northshore School District, is EEN’s student intern for school year 2019/2020.