PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Multnomah County is now taking a newer approach to tackling mental health needs, by focusing on some of the youngest to experience it, children and teens.

After a two-year-long ongoing pandemic, record gun violence in the community and a rise in hate crimes, behavioral health professionals say now’s the time to make sure local youth have the resources they need.

Jason Anajovich first noticed their anxiety was impacting their health when added stresses of life and school started making them sick.

“I would sacrifice my physical and mental well-being in order to get approval from others or to get good grades or stay up all night working on a project,” said Anajovich, one of the youth forum planners and emcee. “It was affecting me to degrees where I was getting sick because I was putting so much into trying to impress the world around me.”

With their own mental health experiences, they knew other teens were going through similar issues but didn’t have a platform to share their experiences. It’s one of the reasons they’re now involved with Multnomah County’s Youth Mental Health Forum.

“Having a forum that is very specifically by youth, for youth, starts to create a peer-to-peer dynamic,” said Anajovich. “But it creates that in a public sphere where we have the opportunity to invite changemakers and policy makers and stakeholders to come and actually listen.”

The county held its second youth forum Saturday — open to those from middle school age all the way through college. The forum offered a chance for young people to connect with each other, while also learning about the resources available if they’re experiencing anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts or other mental crises.

“It’s been a really challenging couple of years for many reasons and a lot of youth have behavioral health challenges and we need to find the solution,” said Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, from Oregon’s 1st Congressional District. “There’s a lot of issues weighing heavy on the minds of our youth today. The isolation that came from the pandemic, it’s been really tough and a lot of students feel like they don’t have a place to reach out or someone they can talk to.”

Beyond the pandemic, teens today notice the impact of issues like hate crimes and racially-motivated attacks, the climate crisis and escalating gun violence. The forum also gave kids and teens the chance to speak one-on-one with community leaders and elected officials, sharing their ideas on how to create permanent help for these youth through public policy.

“There is a lot of suffering with kids in our community and they don’t feel like they have anywhere to go,” said Multnomah County Commissioner Sharon Meieran. “Listen to them about their experiences. Go to them and don’t expect them to come to us,” adding, “don’t impose what we think are the solutions.”

The event was free for attendees in-person and virtual and organizers hope to keep it going.
The first youth mental health forum was held in 2020 just before COVID. Organizers said it’s important to continue these kinds of forums to keep the dialogue going and make positive change.