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Youths to tell legislators importance of supporting behavioral health

When Riley Gibson was just 4 years old, he and his brother were removed from their home and placed into foster care. For the next 14 years, Riley remained in foster care.

Throughout those years, Riley longed for a family of his own, and over time as that prospect did not materialize, his yearning turned into depression and a deep-seated anger. After bouts with gangs and spending time in a juvenile justice facility, Riley began receiving behavioral health services from Jewish Family and Children’s Service (JFCS). Through the therapy, strong support, and mentoring he received at JFCS, Riley began to feel he could set and achieve goals for himself.

Riley joined Magellan Youth Leaders Inspiring Future Empowerment (MY LIFE), a youth leadership group in 2009, and in 2012, became president of MY LIFE.

“MY LIFE is my life,” he said. “I grew up in the foster care system and never had a place I could really get any good advice from when it came to struggles that teens have growing up. MY LIFE has helped me through the hard times and has continued to help me through the good.”

Riley wants to pass on the inspiration he received through MY LIFE to others. He and other MYLIFE members will take their message about the importance of behavioral health services for youth to the state Capitol next week. About a dozen MY LIFE members will meet with Arizona legislators and Gov. Jan Brewer at the sixth annual MY LIFE Youth Day at the Capitol on Feb. 18.

The youths — together with their business and community mentors — will meet with state legislators and the governor to tell their stories and to advocate for issues of importance to them and other youths who have had experience with mental health, substance use or foster care issues.

Youths who experience behavioral health challenges are much more likely than other youths to drop out of high school, be arrested, be bullied or become homeless as they transition to adulthood. MY LIFE is a best-practice program that is helping to address this disparity through youth involvement.

MY LIFE provides a venue where youths can overcome their personal challenges with support from their peers. It teaches youths to be effective agents of community change and helps them to be political and policy advocates. It teaches them that getting their voices heard can inspire others and create positive change for themselves and the community.

Youth Day at the Capitol is an important part of youths making their voices heard. Youths will have one-on-one meetings with legislators to discuss their issues, including bringing more youth voices into the legislative process, the importance of mental health services, and the needs for educational opportunities, jobs and housing for youths transitioning out of foster care.

The youths will be recognized on the House and Senate floors and meet as a group with Governor Brewer and some of her staff.

— Greg Dicharry is Magellan Health Services’ Youth Empowerment Director.   For more information about MY LIFE visit www.magellanofaz.com/community-resources/youth-involvement.aspx.

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