Eight Salem teenagers in suits and dress shirts sat around a table in a third-floor office in downtown Salem, tense as they discussed college plans and Thanksgiving break homework.
They relaxed once U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley walked in, a few minutes late, wearing blue jeans and an outdoor jacket. After introductions, Merkley got to the point.
“What should I know?” he asked.
The high school students are part of Live to Tell, a student-led suicide prevention organization founded this year by South Salem senior Eric Martz.
Merkley, a Democrat, sought their input on a bill he introduced in the Senate in September, which would give states $5 billion to hire more school counselors, psychologists and social workers. It’s called the Elementary and Secondary School Counseling Act.
Students said the money is badly needed, but they told Merkley to be effective, new counselors in schools should be focused just on mental health, not academic advising.
“If there’s an immediate need, they’ll see people, but for the most part, mental health is on the side,” said Eddy Binford-Ross, a South Salem student, of existing high school counselors.
Merkley nodded along as other students echoed her statement.
“There’s the counselors who will sit down with you when you’re in a fistfight or say, ‘Why the hell aren’t you in school,’ which is really different than mental health counseling,” Merkley said, to agreement from students.
The idea for the bill came from meeting with teachers, administrators and parents across Oregon, Merkley said. But it’s also personal.
Growing up in Portland, Merkley said he knew one high school classmate who took his own life.
The boy was a star athlete, under pressure to succeed and win games, and widely admired by his peers.
“I was on the tennis court playing tennis when I heard a shot,” he said. He offered the story as a contrast to the students’ experiences: six Salem-Keizer students killed themselves last school year.
“Somehow, I think the world’s gotten a lot harder,” Merkley said.
At times, the teens echoed concerns Merkley heard raised by parents and teachers. But on other issues, particularly the role of social media in teen anxiety, they disagreed.
“No offense, but older generations kind of put the blame on cellphones and social media,” freshman Nevaeh Bullard, who attends Early College High School, told the senator. “There are so many factors.”
North Salem student La’Maya Thielen said social media can be a positive, but it’s often used as a negative way, where people get competitive about how many likes or reactions they can get to a photo.
She’s set up a peer counseling program at North and said the issues students come to her with often relate to life circumstances, like past sexual abuse, or struggling with homelessness.
Martz said the negatives are real, but social media also lets young people, especially LGBTQ teens, meet people like them.
“Some people find a lot of connection and can find people that they do not see represented in their own community,” he said.
He also cautioned that adults shouldn’t ignore the role of mental illnesses, which often have a genetic component and no relation to life circumstances. Martz volunteers for Youthline, a Portland-based crisis hotline for teens, and said many teens who call in have tried to get help from parents only to be turned down.
“The lack of parent support has been shocking to me,” he said. “Their parents say it’s not real what they’re going through.”
Merkley’s bill is intended to help schools get closer to recommended student to counselor ratios: no more than 250 students per counselor.
Currently, Washington Elementary is the only Salem-Keizer school under that threshold. Statewide, only five of Oregon’s 196 school districts have enough counselors to hit the mark, state data released this fall shows.
Seven Senate Democrats and one Independent have co-sponsored the bill, but without a Republican co-sponsor, it’s unlikely to advance. Merkley is working to secure more co-sponsors, spokeswoman Sara Hottman said.
YouthLine gives Oregon teens an option to talk to other trained teenagers, via call or text, from 4-10 p.m. weekdays, with calls answered by adults during other hours. YouthLine is available at (877) 968-8491, or by text at 839863.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 1-800-273-TALK(8255), and connects callers with a crisis center near them. For help in Spanish, call 1-888-628-9454.