At the close of the first session of the Texas legislature to take place during the time of COVID, which had an enormous agenda to cover at breakneck speed, one thing is abundantly clear: meaningful engagement with public policy is challenging work. On this episode of the podcast, we sit down with three people dedicated to amplifying the voices of youth and young adults to advance mental health policy work in Texas. Our guests Río Gonzalez, Aurora Harris, and Raquel Murphy are part of Young Invincibles, a national organization with a Texas branch that is one of the Hogg Foundation’s newest grantees of its Policy Academy and Fellows Program, which aims to increase individuals’ and organizations’ capacity to advance mental health policy in Texas while also increasing the consumer voice in policy development and implementation.
Invincibility in the Realm of Policy
Young Invincibles was founded in 2009 by a group of college students who felt that the youth voice was missing in the initial debates about the Affordable Care Act. Getting together in their school cafeteria, these students were determined to fight back against the narrative that young people don’t care about healthcare access because they’re “young and invincible.” They began gathering stories from young people about why healthcare access was important to them, and then brought these stories to legislators. From there, the Young Invincibles organization was born. The founding team was instrumental in the decision to allow young people to stay on their parent’s healthcare plan until the age of 26. After this early win, the organization expanded its focus to address other youth-centered issues like college access, affordability, and jobs.
“We look into the persistent problems facing young people,” says Aurora Harris, Southern Regional Director for Young Invincibles. “We try to help decision makers and institutions understand what it’s like to be a young person navigating today’s economy and what young people need to thrive, not just survive.”
Never Too Early to be a Leader
In addition to advocating for young people, another pillar of the Young Invincibles’ work is training young people to advocate for themselves. “We want to truly create policy change for young people by young people,” Harris explains. One way they do this is through storytelling events, where students and other young people can speak about their experiences accessing or seeking mental health care services. It was through one of these storytelling circles that Raquel Murphy found herself involved with Young Invincibles. “It is nice to hear millennials talk, speak out, and tell the world what they need,” says Murphy, who is not herself a millennial, but is passionate about empowering young people. “I am that parent, that person who wants to know, where are the resources? Being a minority, being in a place where you have financial hardships, it is crucial to know where to go, where to reach out.”
To be sure, young people face unique challenges when it comes to advocating for themselves in the realm of public policy. Figuring out what role to play in social change is an important first step, as is building the confidence in one’s self to get over “imposter syndrome,” which Río Gonzalez, Southern Mental Health Policy Fellow for Young Invincibles, says is common in students and young adults. “It has been a very real barrier that I’ve faced,” Gonzalez admits. “It shows up in ways that make me question if I belong in a certain space or if my voice even matters. I think a lot of young adults feel this way, feel disenfranchised, and struggle to uplift their own voices. But since I’ve started working at Young Invincibles, this has really helped chip away at this imposter syndrome and it has given me a set of tools to combat and question that mentality.” Skills that have helped bolster Gonzalez’s confidence include learning to write their own testimony and sharing their stories with legislators. “I know that there is real power behind storytelling,” says Gonzalez. “Powerful stories help drive change.”
Mental Health Policy Priorities in Texas
Learning about the experiences of young adults through their storytelling circles, especially young adults of color and students who may be first-generation, low-income, or student-parents, for whom the challenges of access and affordability can be compounded, Young Invincibles has developed a set of policy priorities that address many of these issues. Most recently, their work helped create Senate Bill 1521, which calls for a mental health task force to study the services that are provided by higher education intuitions for young people on campus. “We believe that the research findings from the task force committee will allow Texas to take innovative steps to address the problems of mental health care on college campuses,” says Gonzalez.