Lindale is a small town in East Texas, known for two things: the high school band and blackberries. We have a church on every street, and for every church a bank to match. We are the hometown of country singer Miranda Lambert and her store, the Pink Pistol. Every October, we throw a big festival called Countryfest, where businesses from the surrounding area set up booths showcasing their products and local dance studios perform. A few years ago we did something that will be the pride of the town for many years to come: our high school football team made the Class 4A Division I state championship game. In many ways, Lindale is just like every other small town in the South. And similarly, every year, towns like Lindale are struck by tragedy. These come in different forms and at different times: car accidents, natural disasters, or sudden illnesses. This year, tragedy hit Lindale in a way many of us had never experienced: on February 28, a classmate took his own life.

Nationally, suicide is the second leading cause of death in children ages 10 to 14 and third in ages 15 to 24, and research shows that as the number of community mental health centers in the United States has decreased, the national suicide rate has increased. According to CDC data, the suicide rate is higher in rural areas than in metropolitan areas. Mental health issues are still stigmatized in many Texas communities. In Lindale, there are only a couple places where residents can talk to a licensed professional—in a town of nearly 6,500. All Texans need more access to mental health services, but those in small towns do not really have the option to get help at all right now.

My generation, Gen Z, is experiencing higher rates of depression than previous generations: according to recent CDC data, 42 percent of high school students felt persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, up from 28 percent in 2011. I believe this is in part due to the ever-growing presence of technology in our lives and what that technology exposes us to. I was born in 2005; social media has always been within arm’s reach. My peers and I see terrifying, violent events almost as soon as they happen and are expected to simply move past it and quickly get over any feelings these events elicit; we do not know any other way to live.

But around the country, activists and elected leaders are trying to convince us that drag queens are more harmful to kids than a massive increase in gun violence and mental illness. The dozens of proposed state laws targeting transgender children and other LGBTQ Texans only exacerbate the risk among communities that are already at a higher risk of mental health issues and suicide than others. A Trevor Project survey found that 45 percent of LGBTQ youth have seriously considered suicide, 73 percent have experienced symptoms of anxiety, and 58 percent have had symptoms of depression.

Meanwhile, Governor Greg Abbott has made one issue his top priority: “parental choice” in education. Senate Bill 8 is the proposed private school voucher bill that, if passed, would also ban the teaching and discussion of all things LGBTQ+ in public schools for grades K–12. When asked to comment, Lindale ISD superintendent Stan Surratt told me, “The voucher program is just a terrible idea. In reality, this program would help very few individuals while taking money away from the public school system, taking funding away from individuals who need all the help they can get.” A former LISD administrator with more than seventeen years of experience in public education echoed these sentiments, stating that “[s]chools need more staffing and support with counseling, academic and behavioral interventionists, special education services, and social workers to bridge school and home support for students.”

Texas ranks forty-second nationally in per-student spending, according to the 2021 Quality Counts report. The state currently has a nearly $33 billion surplus, but leaders refuse to fund public education with this absurd amount of money. Instead, state leaders want to take money away from the public education system and divert it to private schools via school vouchers. Whenever a decision is made to undermine a service provided to millions of children across the state, not a single person benefits.

This holds even more true when looking at the history of vouchers and how they are distributed. In practice, vouchers are given to a disproportionate number of white families who remove their children from ethnically diverse public schools; the little funding that public schools receive would only continue to be depleted with “white flight” from public to private schools. Even with the recent passing of the amendment to the budget bill that prevents funds dedicated to public schools from being used for vouchers, the fact remains that Texas public schools need financial help. Changes have to be made, but taking money away from the public school system is always a terrible idea, even more so when those schools do not have the money to provide basic needs, like mental health services, to students.

In Texas, more than 590 school districts, about half of the districts in the state, have no mental health professional or mental health service option available to students. Several bills have been introduced this legislative session to address mental health needs for students—HB 1157 would allow absences for mental health appointments to count as excused and HB 98 would allow schools to contract with mental health providers and get reimbursed by Medicaid for eligible students—but state leaders are working at the same time to remove resources from the already underfunded public education system.

I want change to happen because I do not want students across the state to deal with the same situations my community has. No kid should be worrying about the horrors of adult life. No kid should be made to think that they are less than others or that they need to hurt themselves. I am sick and tired of turning on the news and hearing of another school shooting, of another life lost to suicide. I would be lying if I said I had not thought of what I would do if a gunman walked into my high school, because these are the things students have to think about in today’s world.

As of this writing, there have been more than 170 mass shootings in the United States this year, 8 percent of them here in Texas, making it one of the most active gun violence states. With more than seventy people injured or dead from school shootings alone this year, change must take place in our state to greatly reduce the damage we are causing to ourselves. Every day, students all across the country walk into school with the knowledge that at any time a gunman could enter the building. The worst part is we allow this to keep happening over and over again.

What the loss in my community made me realize was that anything can happen to anyone at any point in time. In the weeks following my classmate’s suicide, schools all across East Texas received threats of a school shooting, forcing lockdowns as teachers and administrators worked to protect their students. After the Uvalde massacre, in which a gunman murdered nineteen children and two adults in an elementary school, U.S. senator Ted Cruz said that school shootings could be prevented by locking doors. Lindale’s state senator, Bryan Hughes, tweeted that he and other state senators were “doing everything we can to protect the schoolchildren of Texas.” But their actions—and lack thereof—have proven otherwise. Hughes has been an advocate of legislation targeting trans athletes and drag performers—even as bills that negatively affect the LGBTQ+ community have devastating effects on their mental health.

Doors and trans kids are not the issues here; the issue is the lack of legislation that has allowed mass shootings to continue while simultaneously worsening the mental health of our nation’s youth. After Uvalde, the Special Committee to Protect All Texans in the state senate concluded that mental health access should be expanded and that a small amount of gun control was needed. Now, almost a year after the Robb Elementary shooting, Texas still does not have red-flag gun laws in place, making it easier for people who want to commit violent acts to obtain weaponry. Instead, Texas has open-carry laws, meaning that anyone can openly carry a firearm without a permit just about everywhere.

Texas is the greatest state in the country, this much I know to be true. But Texans need help, and the state has the resources to help them; leaders just need the will. Paired with expanded mental health services, simple gun reform could make a world of difference here in Texas. I do not want your guns to be taken away—I just want to see my classmates alive. I will not lie to you by saying that increased mental health services and reformed gun laws will prevent all mental illnesses, suicides, and school shootings. However, these changes will make a difference and prevent the likelihood that these tragic events will continue to happen. In a world filled with hate, let us be the hope for a brighter future.

Aden Ramsey is a Lindale High School junior with extensive knowledge of Tennessee Williams’s plays and classic movies. His future plans include utilizing his experience and skills in debate and politics to attend law school to practice personal injury law.