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Addressing Youth Suicide Goes Sideways in Keizer
Mayor Cathy Clark again snubs youth participation in favor of a political friend
It’s hard to imagine an otherwise affable local elected official using teen suicide as a political prop, but it’s equally as difficult to imagine a different explanation for what happened at a pair of June 2023 Keizer City Council meetings.
Let’s back up a bit, and imagine together.
At the June 5th Keizer City Council meeting, lifelong Keizer resident Emerson Carella politely admonished the City Council for rejecting his appointment by City Councilor Robert Husseman to the city’s Volunteer Coordinator Committee (VCC) - a powerful group that acts as a gatekeeper of sorts for persuasion and power in Keizer.
Carella’s appointment, for those just joining, prompted City Council President Shaney Starr to introduce a council rule change in May 2023 that would prevent Carella’s appointment based on his age - he is 17 years-old.
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At the early June council meeting, Carella again implored the council to reconsider his appointment, especially in light of his commitment to an issue he’s been working on for years - youth suicide. His self-described intention was to serve the people of Keizer on the VCC, while using the role to amplify the importance of talking about and addressing youth suicide in Keizer.
Carella spoke quickly and rarely faltered as he addressed the City Council. He spoke to current trends in youth suicide, especially in Oregon, that are heading in the wrong direction. But perhaps the most critical point he made in his approximately 5 minute address?
“No one else seems to view suicide from the lens that teenagers and youth view it from.”
And, Carella said, the rates of youth suicide are worsening - evidence that existing efforts aren’t good enough. The worsening problem needs better, different solutions, he said.
If you watch him speak (and you should, he’s good at it), you start to realize that this 17 year-old McNary High School student is arguably overqualified to work with Keizer on this literal life-and-death issue - he’s got experience, training, vigor and the perspective & credibility of being…an actual youth.
(Ed. note: At this point if you’re not thinking of the way Joe Pesci in My Cousin Vinny pronounces “youths,” we have different interests 😂)
But, instead of taking him up on his offer…
Keizer Mayor Cathy Clark told Carella that she had seen a recent article about him in a local newspaper and, as a result, invited Salem-Keizer School Board Director Satya Chandragiri to address the City Council during the following council meeting, on June 20.
The KeizerTimes article Clark referred to effectively announced Carella’s intentions to appear before the board with two goals:
reconsider the rule change that robbed him of his appointment; and
to educate the council on the impact of teen suicide and how his civic participation could help tackle the issue locally.
And then, in response, Clark had Chandragiri come to City Council at the June 20 meeting where he gave this…sprawling, kinda meandering talk that was…definitely about teen suicide?
Chandragiri, who is a board-certified psychiatrist practicing in Salem, gave a whopping 40 minute presentation to City Councilors. He managed to regurgitate many of the data-informed points Carella had made the previous meeting.
(Ed. note: Look, I’ve seen presentations that were obviously thrown together quickly. I’ve run that play a couple times myself. Chandragiri’s presentation had a similar vibe.)
But Chandragiri’s presentation missed the actual mark, by a mile (maybe more).
Remember Carella’s critical point he made during his talk? He urged Keizer City Council to consider the voices of younger folks as they think about how to help address youth suicide. Those voices, he said, are so crucial in addressing youth suicide because adults keep throwing the same resources at this issue for years - and it’s getting worse.
Yet the actual core of Chandragiri’s presentation was recitation of available resources - mainly websites with directories to other resources.
In other words, Chandragiri offered the exact resource array that Carella warned the City Council earlier in the month isn’t enough. It’s literally throwing the same failing solutions at a deadly problem that’s worsening.
It probably doesn’t help that while Chandragiri offers adolescent psychiatric services in his private practice, he doesn’t have any documented professional expertise in the area - no known certifications; no known published research; no known typical expressions of expertise you’d expect to find from someone selected by our Keizer City Mayor to offer a presentation on youth suicide.
In fact, when you go to the “Adolescent Psychiatry” section of Chardragiri’s practice website, most of the resource links he provides are broken - some even point to a website that sells synthetic marijuana.
Chandragiri’s questionable expertise around youth suicide (or adolescent mental health, in general) isn’t the only reason he’s a curious choice for Mayor Clark to make.
Chandragiri just won a tight race to keep his seat on the Salem-Keizer School Board. He campaigned vigorously with two other right-wing candidates - one of which openly held anti-LGBTQ+ views and worked to politically target transgender school children in Salem-Keizer.
Casity Troutt ended up losing her race for Salem-Keizer School Board, but Chandragiri lent his name, his time, his resources, and his money to help her win.
In their 2023 survey, The Trevor Project shows us that the rates of youth considering or attempting suicide are far higher for LGBTQ+ youth - especially transgender youth.
And, despite it being Pride Month, Chandragiri made no mention in his 40 minute presentation of the terrible burden placed on these young folks by culture war carnage stoked by people like his former running mate, Troutt.
That’s not even Chandragiri’s only strong tie to extremist far-right people and groups that have put a bullseye on young LGBTQ+ folks in our community.
He regularly appears with, and accepts financial and personal support from, a christofascist group called SK We Stand Together - a group formed by another failed school board candidate, Linda Farrington.
Here’s a recent sample of what Farrington and her group advocates for:
And that’s just from the last 30 days or so on their Twitter account. Farrington and her christofascist critters have been spreading dangerous, targeted disinformation like this for months & months.
When you start to see where Chandragiri’s support comes from, and the people he closely works with, Mayor Clark’s choice becomes even more bizarre.
So, what happened? How does a skilled, longtime elected official like Keizer Mayor Clark botch something as simple as joining in the effort to address youth suicide?
Ultimately, that’s up to Mayor Clark to answer.
But I think reasonable people would agree that it’s odd for Clark to pick someone as poorly qualified as Chandragiri to give a presentation on youth suicide. Especially when there’s a much better suited alternative literally waiting in the wings to help (Carella, by the way, attended Chandragiri’s presentation).
Maybe Clark didn’t know about Chandragiri’s close ties with anti-LGBTQ+ groups and candidates? Maybe she didn’t know his qualifications around youth suicide are demonstrably tenuous, at best?
Or maybe she did know all that. And felt he was a good fit, despite his actions and associations? After all, Clark and Chandragiri are political allies - most recently with Clark endorsing Chandragiri in his school board race.
Either way - not great. Keizer deserves better leadership, especially in the face of a crisis like youth suicide.
Maybe we should start by not just listening to young folks on this - but getting out of their way.
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