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Gov. Kotek, HHS Secretary Becerra discuss teen mental health challenges at Portland school

In a talk with teenagers and young adults, leaders listened to calls for more mental health services, representative support workers, and communication of options.

PORTLAND, Ore. — U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and Oregon Governor Tina Kotek talked with teenagers and young adults about youth mental health challenges at a Portland school Monday.

Becerra, Kotek and Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson toured Faubion K-8 School before joining a roundtable discussion.

Becerra acknowledged a need for expanded mental health services, saying most Americans believe a mental health crisis is a growing and concerning problem.

He praised the rollout of the '988' national suicide and crisis lifeline as an improvement, but said there’s a need for better communication of what’s available and better access to mental healthcare.

“My mom said it even simpler – es mejor prevenir que remediar – better to prevent than to remediate," Becerra said. "I want to be there at the front end, not at the back end when it costs so much money, and I’ve seen how youth have been so successful in making the connection with the generation of youth that’s crying out for help.”

Kotek praised youth volunteers and plans to boost the number of mental healthcare workers across Oregon, mostly through the University of Oregon's Ballmer Institute for Children's Behavioral Health and it's undergraduate program plans.

RELATED: University of Oregon names executive director for Ballmer Institute for Children's Behavioral Health

Some of the teenagers and young adults said they need access to representative services and support workers who can relate to their life experiences.

Byronie McMahon, a student at Cleveland High School, said improved awareness of existing options would go a long way.

"Many people don't know necessarily what's out there for them," she said. "From a student perspective, communicating what we already have is going to make a big difference."

Other young adult speakers said it's special that their generation recognizes it’s okay to be vulnerable and breaks down stigma around mental health, but often that perspective isn’t shared by adults in their lives — leading to a feeling that there's no one to talk to.

Becerra praised an expansion of funding under the Biden administration for 988, but said more state buy-in is needed to keep improving that system.

He said Oregon has become a state that the Biden administration looks to in order to 'move the dial' — referencing an expansion of the Medicaid waiver program to allow for funds to be spent on more than just medical care, such as nutrition or other social determinative health factors.

Kotek said she will focus on providing better mental health services through both the health and education systems.

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