Bridget McCarthy Is on a Mission to Provide Information, Awareness and Resources to as Many Parents as Possible
By Zach Armstrong
The late Santa Monica High School student Riley Chart would have recently turned 19. This is Bridget McCarthy’s son, who committed suicide three years ago.
Riley, who identified as a member of the LGBTQ community and had issues of depression and anxiety, was a “creative” person who attended SaMoHi before the family moved to Culver City during the pandemic. Following what McCarthy describes as a “minor parent interaction” over being on the phone, Riley had an extreme reaction. McCarthy left the room and phoned a therapist. By the time she came back, she had to break in the locked door, but it was too late.
Since the passing of her son, McCarthy has been on a mission to provide needed information, awareness and resources to as many parents as possible. The information and resources which she believes could have saved her son’s life if she was made aware of them.
“I spent thousands with therapists and doctors and nobody ever said, ‘Just be aware of the signs and what to look for.’ Like many parents in my position, we love our kids, we want the best for them, but the world has changed, the stresses are very different and the same responses do not work,” McCarthy said. “Seeing training programs since losing Riley, I was in tears, because if the information was there at that moment, I would have responded differently. I wouldn’t have phoned a therapist, which I thought was the best thing to do, and I wouldn’t have left the room. I would have reached out for support lines, which I didn’t even know existed.”
She joined the board of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Greater Los Angeles Chapter. She’s met with legislators in Washington D.C. to advocate for school’s mental health professionals. Locally, McCarthy works closely with Santa Monica College, Santa Monica Unified School District, City Council and school board. Last year, McCarthy co-chaired the “Out of Darkness” walk on the Santa Monica Pier; an annual event where people walk side-by-side, supporting each other and open up about loved ones they’ve lost to suicide and mental health.
Later this month, McCarthy will be presented with a proclamation from the Santa Monica City Council and Mayor Gleam Davis that recognizes suicide as a national and statewide public health problem and designates Sept. 10 through 16 as “National Suicide Prevention Week” in California.
Awareness of the 9-8-8 hotline, a new suicide and crisis lifeline available nationwide, is something McCarthy believes can make a difference along with reducing the stigma around mental health. “You can just ask kids directly ‘Are you feeling safe? Are you okay? Do you feel suicidal?’ I’ve asked kids and they say they’d love to be asked but we tiptoe around it.” McCarthy said.
Funding mental health training in schools is one initiative McCarthy has championed in her lobbying efforts with politicians. Working with SMC and SMMUSD, she says as many as 10% of students have contemplated taking their own lives.
One piece of legislation McCarthy believes would make a crucial difference is California State Senate Bill 509, introduced by Sen. Portantino (D-La Cañada Flintridge). The bill would require the California Department of Education to ensure 75% of school campus staff complete a behavioral health training program on how to refer to mental health services, substance use disorder services, or other support for those in early stages of mental illness or substance use disorders.
The biggest obstacles McCarthy says stand in the way of these goals are fiscal arguments. How do things like mandatory mental health training and the 9-8-8 line get funded? But her argument has always been that the price tag for such funding is a “drop in the bucket” compared to other items thoroughly funded by local, state and federal governments.
Societal factors play a role as well. The internet and the “comparison of the perfection of others” is something McCarthy says results in mental health degradation for young people along with the isolation many felt during Covid-19. Riley also identified as a trans boy, and McCarthy says the LGBT community has suffered the pressure of hatred.
But McCarthy says she has also seen positive improvement on mental health services for young people and “so much hope for the future”. According to her, schools are now more open to provide mental health training. She also says she sees young people becoming more open to discussions of mental and emotional health.
Now, as she awaits her proclamation from City Council, McCarthy also looks forward to raising more awareness in the community with the next “Santa Monica Out Of The Darkness Walk” which will be sponsored by the City of Santa Monica. The event is taking place Oct. 21 at 10 a.m. at the pier. Interested participants can register at afsp.org/lawalk.
“I’m so connected with other parents and other moms in Santa Monica,” McCarthy said. “We meet in the parks where we used to meet for playdates. It’s a very surreal thing. We just don’t want anybody else joining us on the benches.”