“Kids are in crisis,” says Patti Skelton-McGougan. “Families need to learn to be open to understanding and talking about mental health.” She would know. As the CEO of Youth Eastside Services, Skelton-McGougan has witnessed a concerning rise in mental health issues among the young people she has worked with over the past three decades.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in six youths ages 6–17 has a mental health disorder, and suicide is the second-leading cause of death among young people in the United States.
The good news? “Preventing problems early really makes a difference,” says Skelton-McGougan. Enter Youth Eastside Services (YES), East King County’s leading behavioral health services provider. As mental health needs increase both nationally and locally, YES’ services are an increasingly vital community resource. The center is open to all and offers low- or no-cost services to families in need.
Skelton-McGougan has served at the center for more than 25 years, but she laughs as she reminisces about her early career as a flight attendant. “I was always drawn to helping the kids flying by themselves, the disabled, the injured, the elderly. I found that passion for helping others was something that always mattered to me.” She left the friendly skies and landed in the nonprofit world, and the rest is herstory.
Who is your personal hero?
My mom. My mom just knew how to work hard. She was highly educated, but she still made time to play, to have fun and to help others, even as a working mom with five kids at home. I remember my mom taking me to homeless shelters to donate food or clothes and to other volunteer things we did through church. Those things stick with you and shape you in life.
What do you wish people understood about your work?
I’d like people to understand that mental health matters and dealing with the stigma around it is critical. We have a crisis going on right now. We need to talk about it and not treat it like it’s a big taboo thing. Supporting organizations that are addressing mental health and substance use is critical for the health of our families and communities.
What’s one small action our readers can take in their own lives to make positive change happen?
I think it’s important for people to know they can take baby steps. Make the phone call, reach out in an email, don’t be afraid to try. A small thing is a big thing. Support issues you care about financially. Get involved and volunteer. Vote. That matters!
What daily habit or small routine is most important to you?
I read a daily devotional called “Jesus Calling,” and it just grounds me. Also, I make sure I have fresh air, time with family and with pets. My day is just better when I do. They’re what’s important to me.
How do you measure progress in your field?
We measure things a lot of different ways, but when I look at what’s changed in the past 10 years, we’ve implemented and learned about best practices that help people to get well sooner. Those best practices are so critical and so important. On the flip side, we’ve seen such an increase in anxiety, depression and suicide among youths. That, to me, is the most dramatic change over the past 10 years.
What is your best advice for today’s parents who want to raise and support their kids to achieve big ambitions?
I think back to my flight attendant days and the “oxygen mask” analogy. It may be cliché, but it’s the same in life. Parents need to put their own oxygen mask on first to help their children thrive.
My other advice to parents would be to ask questions and listen without judging. It’s okay to encourage kids to aim high, but don’t push them. We push kids to achieve, be the best, get good grades. It’s hurting them. They need balance, they need downtime, they need family. Their anxiety is rising because of the constant pressure they’re under. And it’s not just kids — parents have that anxiety, too.
Find ways to manage that in a healthy way however you can. Don’t be afraid to ask kids about their mental health; take what you’re hearing and learn when to seek resources and help. It’s more cost-effective and it matters to catch kids when they’re young. Help them build resilience and let them fail at a young age so when they’re older and issues become a little more critical, they know that suicide isn’t the answer.
If you could have a superpower, what would it be?
Wouldn’t it be fun to be able to fly and spread a little peace and joy around the world right now?
If you could dine with anyone, living or dead, whom would that be and why?
Oprah. She makes such a difference with what she does with her time and resources all over the world.
Fill in the blank: What the world needs now is _____________.
Love, peace, joy and hope. Those are things that I think matter.