Senator Anthony Portantino Speaks on the Importance of Mental Health Awareness

State Senator Anthony Portantino brings Awareness to Mental Health wearing a bracelet.(Fire Photo by Ross A Benson)

May is Mental Health Awareness Month and Devin Herenda shares some articles highlighting the topic.

Senator for the 25th State District, Anthony Portantino, is representing Burbank by making progressive moves through his mental health legislation initiatives.

Mental health is a subject that hits close to home for Portantino. His older brother suffered from severe depression and went through three county systems to seek treatment for his mental health struggles. After multiple suicide attempts, Portantino’s brother sadly ended up taking his own life a decade ago, which is a large part of what inspired Portantino to focus on how our state systems address psychological wellness. 

“That taught me a lot about the system itself [and] how we do well or don’t do well dealing with mental health issues,” Portantino said of experiences with his brother’s mental illness. “One of the things that I learned through my brother’s processes [was that] he got better at gaming the system the more he was in the system…I was not notified when there were particular hearings.”

Senator Anthony Portantino displays a Awareness bracelet. (Photo by Ross A Benson)

As Portantino wasn’t told when his brother was released from his mental health facility, this enabled him to go unattended while still suicidal. Taking from this personal experience, Portantino authored Senate Bill No. 565, which was approved in 2017. The bill requires such facilities to make reasonable attempts at alerting family members of the times and dates of a patient’s certification review hearing. This policy prevents a similar situation of suicidal patients being discharged without supervision upon release.

Along with learning about weaknesses within the system, Portantino’s family tragedy resulted in a drove of community members approaching him and sharing their own similar experiences with depression, suicide, and other mental struggles within their family units. 

“After it was known that my brother committed suicide,… one after another, family after family came up to me and told me about their personal family struggle [with mental health],” Portantino said. “And it really struck me just how widespread mental health is and also how reluctant and hesitant people are to bring it out of the shadows.”

Recent proposals Portantino has introduced include Senate Bills 14 and 224. The former bill would allow for excused absences for students who need time off for mental health needs, and educate school staff on signs to recognize in students who may be suffering from a mental illness. This knowledge could put an end to scenarios like one mentioned at a recent State Senate hearing. At the hearing, a father whose 14-year-old daughter committed suicide called in to tell his story. Prior to her passing, his daughter turned in a written school assignment which revealed signs of depression. Her father, in agreement with Portantino, expressed how training will help school staff members recognize warning signals in students going through serious emotional struggles. 

“It takes the stigma away and it provides the opportunity for 50 percent of all school personnel to be trained in understanding the mental health warning signs,” Portantino said of SB 14. “We’re not asking a teacher,…janitor or the administration to implement the care. All we’re asking them to do is understand the warning signs so then that kid can be directed to the proper place.”

Senate Bill 224 would provide students in grades 1 through 12 with age-appropriate mental health education from instructors with proper qualifications. Depending on if both bills get through the state legislature by August of 2021, the earliest these measures could go into law would be January of 2022. Additionally, further administrative steps would need to be taken to form the training programs and curriculum outlined in the bills. Some organizations which have shown support for bills include the California Council of Community Behavioral Health Agencies and Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation(SB 14 supporters), along with the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the National Center for Youth Law (SB 224 supporters). 

Past mental health legislation from Portantino includes printing the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number on student ID cards and pushing back school start times for middle schools and high schools, which studies have shown lowers the chance of students developing anxiety and depression. Portantino’s goal with each of these initiatives is to address the prominence of mental health struggles and destigmatize open and honest conversations on the topic. 

State Senator Anthony Portantino talks with the crowd at a Burbank event (File Photo By Ross Benson)

“Individuals are afraid to ask for help because they don’t want to be marginalized,” Portantino said of mental health stigmas. “They don’t want to be treated differently. They don’t want to be stigmatized. And so some people refuse to ask for help …we have to create a healthy society where people feel comfortable getting the help and care they need so they don’t keep it to themselves.”

Portantino is an enthusiastic supporter of Burbank’s Family Service Agency, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing the community with mental health services through youth, couples and family counseling. The FSA further offers support through transitional housing and violence prevention services and education. The Burbank Unified School District also received Portantino’s praise for their openness to mental wellness advocacy, although he feels there is still a long way to go in normalizing mental health awareness in our culture.  

“The FSA is an outstanding organization that’s doing everything it can, but I think Burbank faces the same challenges that every community has, is there’s that huge stigma out there,” Portantino said. “The Burbank Unified School District…is very progressive in its mental health perspectives and policies, and I think it’s doing an outstanding job,…but the needs are great. And that’s why we have to all collectively do more.”

Senator Anthony Portantino in front of Family Service Agency. ( File Photo by Ross A Benson)

As May is Mental Health Awareness Month, there is a great opportunity to educate oneself on mental wellness. Organizations like the aforementioned National Alliance on Mental Illness highlight the prevalence of psychological health issues across demographic groups. They report that 20.6% of all adults in the U.S. experienced some degree of mental illness in 2019, while 16.5% of U.S. youth dealt with their own bouts of psychological struggles in 2016. Mental health problems can occur for anyone, and becoming more aware and educated on the matter will lead to a stronger society which engages in treatment-seeking behavior.

“These are valid, legitimate issues that people face every day and every family across all socioeconomic and racial groups and geography,” Portantino said. “It doesn’t discriminate…And so I think everybody can be an advocate for mental health…The more we embrace it, the more we discuss it, the more we get people help.”