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First Lady Jill Biden visited a suburban Indianapolis high school Wednesday to talk about the youth mental health crisis.
The event was supposed to be a small gathering with students who are part of a mental health group at Westfield High School. But at the last minute, Biden asked the school to invite more students because she wanted to meet young people who weren’t yet tied into a support system.
“As a teacher what I’ve found is that the kid who commits suicide is the kid you never, ever imagined was suffering,” Biden told about 80 high schoolers who packed into a room for her visit. “That’s the student that I feel like we have to reach out to.”
Biden, who teaches English and writing at a community college, was accompanied by the U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. They came to discuss the crisis in teen mental health across the country. More than 40 percent of American high schoolers reported feeling persistently sad or hopeless in 2021. And the number young people who have considered suicide was on the rise for years before the pandemic.
“We are here because the youth mental health crisis in America represents a defining public health challenge of our time,” Murthy said. “I say this not only as a Surgeon General, but as a father of two young kids, who looks at them each day when I kiss them and send them off to school. And who worries about what the future holds for them.”
During the visit, the first lady touted President Biden’s support for mental health care. It includes a $1 billion investment in schools.
Biden and Murthy met with students from the Westfield High School club Robbie's Hope, which is part of a national organization working to increase awareness of mental health and reduce suicide.
While youth mental health needs have reached crisis levels, how to respond has become politically contentious. Right wing activists, including in other Hamilton County school districts, have pushed schools to stay out of providing mental healthcare. Those critics argue that it may promote ideas that conflict with parents’ values.
The political nature of mental health support was apparent during Biden’s visit, when she called on students to contribute.
Lexi, a sophomore, told Biden the mental health of queer students is often politicized.
“I don’t think I’ve ever met a queer kid who has good mental health,” she said. “And I think that something needs to be done about that because right now we are in such a scary time.”
Those fears are backed by data. Nearly 70 percent of LGBTQ high schoolers reported feeling sad or hopeless in a national survey in 2021.
But other students raised issues that were not overtly political. John, a senior, said that teenagers need to know that when their peers open up to them about depression or other mental health needs, they should help them reach out to professionals like therapists.
“Teenagers know how to talk to each other. They know how to support each other,” he said. “But it’s not our job to fix each other.”
Biden is scheduled to visit Chicago later in the day, and on Thursday take part in a series of back-to-school events.
Contact WFYI education reporter Dylan Peers McCoy at firstname.lastname@example.org.