Youth Activists Host Mental Health Summit

By: Tarun Galagali, Senior Adviser to Congressman Khanna and Alumnus from Monta Vista High School; Shilpa Sajja, Junior at Castilleja High School. Published by the Bay Area News Group.

A couple weeks after his election, I called Congressman Khanna to talk about an initiative for improving the mental health of our high school students. Hundreds of kids had campaigned for him and along the way, they had shared anecdotes with him on their anxiety and depression. And so, with the help of a thought leader in the field, Vicki Abeles, we published an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle on what district administrators could do to tackle this crisis. Even then, we knew that change would not come from a Congressman’s five point plan. It would have to come from the grassroots.

Parents, students, teachers and community leaders gather in support of the issue. Photo by Om Khandekar, El Estoque.

Last weekend, we witnessed its arrival. Shilpa Sajja, a 17 year old leader within Congressman Khanna’s youth activism group “Agents of Change,” hosted a summit on mental health for over 200 people — parents and students alike. Speakers included FUHSD school board member Hung Wei, chairs of English departments at Monta Vista and Lynbrook High School and nationally renowned physicians. The event had three goals: raise awareness, cultivate a community and enable empowerment.

Awareness. Dr. Stuart Slavin, a former dean at the St. Louis University School of Medicine, kicked off the event by presenting some compelling research. In a 2016 survey of Irvington High School students in Fremont, Slavin found that 54% showed moderate to severe symptoms of depression and 80% reported moderate to severe symptoms of anxiety. Two students presented after Slavin, reporting the results of a peer-to-peer survey sent out to nearly 400 students: over 66% reported that they felt their worth as human beings was defined by their academic performance. A failed test wasn’t just a bad score that needed further evaluation. Particularly when their peers outperformed them, a bad score was a black mark on their sense of self.

The consequences of poor mental health are troubling for more than one reason. Our mental health not only shapes how we react to every experience we have in our lives, it is also directly linked to our physiological well being. A study commissioned by the CDC and Kaiser Permanente and conducted over several years confirms that severe emotional stress as adolescents leads not only to long term anxiety and depression, but also lung, liver, and heart disease as adults.

Empowerment. While at SLU School of Medicine, Dr. Slavin implemented a range of initiatives, including regular mindfulness practices and courses on metacognition (the ability to think about your thinking). In 2009, before his initiatives were in place, 35% of 2nd year medical students reported feeling depressed and by 2016, there was a marked drop — only 6% reported symptoms. What is equally fascinating is that after Slavin’s implemented changes, average Step 1 Board scores showed a marked increase. If we apply Dr. Slavin’s wisdom on wellness, we will enable students to thrive in every sense.

Community. At the summit, I also had an opportunity to interview my mother, Kalpana Galagali. The rich relationship we share today is a result of emotionally honest conversations and an assumption that each of us have good intentions, even when we disagree. At the end of the day, we talked about how parents and kids do the best that they know how to do. Simply recognizing that fact goes a long way in creating emotionally healthier connections, key to mutual evolution for both parents and kids.

Pictured: Students, Dr. Slavin, Tarun Galagali, and Fayzan Rab.

It may have just been one day, but if the Agents of Change Mental Health Summit signaled anything, it was this in California’s 17th District, we’re witnessing the rise of a new generation of activists: young folks who believe that change doesn’t end with elections. That, in fact, after elections are when change begins.

The article as it appeared in print.