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Governors from across the nation convene in Salt Lake City to discuss youth mental health

Gov. Spencer Cox speaks to a group of teachers and parents about the effects of social media on teens’ mental health at Bonneville Jr. High School. Cox also addressed social media and mental health among youth during the National Governors Association convention held in Salt Lake City on Tuesday.

Gov. Spencer Cox speaks to a group of teachers and parents about the effects of social media on teens’ mental health at Bonneville Jr. High School. Cox also addressed social media and mental health among youth during the National Governors Association convention held in Salt Lake City on Tuesday. (Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)


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SALT LAKE CITY — The National Governors Association met in Salt Lake City this week for the first meeting about the organization's 2022-2023 Chair's Initiative, which is focused on strengthening youth mental health.

The two-day convention, which began Tuesday, featured a series of panels and roundtables with experts across the nation weighing in. The panelists included governors from across the nation but also featured First Lady Abby Cox and New Jersey First Lady Tammy Murphy.

"There was unanimous, literally unanimous agreement that all of us need to be focusing deeply — particularly coming out of the pandemic — we've had mental health challenges," said New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, National Governors Association chairman. "We've had mental health challenges among our kids before and they've gotten even more challenging."

"We've seen the data and it's something we're very concerned about — something we've been trying to focus on here," said Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, National Governors Association vice chairman. "It's refreshing to see Republicans and Democrats working together on an issue, I think that's something the nation needs more of."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that in 2021, more than one-third of high school students reported they experienced poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, and 44% reported they persistently felt sad or hopeless during the past year.

The crisis garnered the attention of U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, who issued an urgent advisory on addressing youth mental health at the end of 2021.

While Cox noted that mental health has been an increased focus in Utah for a number of years prior to the pandemic — Utah has consistently higher rates of self-reported lifetime depression than the U.S. rate — he said the pandemic further escalated the issue.

While federal agencies have spotlighted the issue, the National Governors Association convention has created an opportunity for interchanging initiatives and programs between states.

"I think we can be a lot more nimble than the federal government. ...That's not to say that you could live without the federal government, because we all need the federal government. They are the guerrilla player. But I think governors are closer to the ground," said Murphy.

"What's so fun about this is the exchange of ideas. We're having these conversations right now, and they've done some things that I think we could do here in Utah that I'm really excited about," added Cox. "Hopefully, there's some things that we've done that other states can learn from. That's what we get to do that the federal government doesn't get to do."

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Utah state Rep. Steve Eliason, who explained a variety of initiatives or programs the state had implemented in recent years, pointed to the development and expansion of the Safe UT app.

The app was originally designed for students in Utah schools who could report concerns, such as bullying or mental health issues, and access crisis care or counselors through it. The app was expanded to Safe UT Frontline and Safe UT National Guard, with similar features to the Safe UT app for schools.

Other initiatives mentioned included the introduction of wellness rooms into schools, funding for optional mental health screening for students, and integration of tools for emotional regulation into the classroom.

Many of the panels addressed the failures of the current systems in place and the need for investing in programs upstream.

The roundtable of governors listened to a Lived Experience panel intended to center the voices of those impacted by the youth mental health crisis. The panel was composed of Dr. Stanley Brewer, pediatric psychiatrist at Primary Children's Hospital; Jason Strate, director of Central Utah Educational Services; Marcie Valenzuela, parent; Maygan Martinez, chairwoman of Youth Service Youth Advisory Board and youth expert for the Salt Lake County Coalition to End Homelessness.

The speakers outlined key points for improving the system:

  • Parity in treatment
  • Including youth voices when making decisions regarding youth
  • Including lived experience and creating space for that experience when creating policies
  • Centering compassion

"We are putting a tremendous amount of money and resources here, but it's not aligned, it's not working together. Everyone's doing something good, but they're not doing it in conjunction," said Cox.

"There's a huge spectrum of mental health challenges, and far too often it's not just a spectrum but it's a conveyer belt — in that if we don't take care of it on one end, it ends up getting worse over time. So, to me, it's how do we align our resources in a way that we're getting upstream of this?" Cox continued.

The National Governors Association's first meeting of the chairman's initiative is the first approach to aligning those resources across the nation. The association will continue to meet on the initiatives until July, when this set of initiatives close, and will create a "playbook" in addressing them.

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Utah K-12 educationUtah governmentPoliticsU.S.UtahHealthFamily
Ashley Fredde covers human services and and women's issues for KSL.com. She also enjoys reporting on arts, culture and entertainment news. She's a graduate of the University of Arizona.

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