Content note: Some of these reflections mention suicide/suicidal ideation, mass shootings, and state-sanctioned murder.
As a high schooler in Texas, the conversation of mental health is very intersectional to our political climate. My city experienced a mass shooting in 2019 at our local mall. I was in 8th grade at the time, and there wasn't much done at the school level to discuss our thoughts. My English teacher was committed to hearing us out, so one of our class projects was creating a mural for the victims and presenting it to our local cultural affairs department. We were using our voices to enact change, but not talking about the ways it affected us and the ways we view public spaces.
We have counselors, but we are unique in the sense that we utilize SEL (social emotional learning) as part of our curriculum, which has worked wonderfully for me and my peers to feel like our school values us and our mental health. I wish people knew it's okay if we make mistakes. As the stakes—academically, socially, politically—become higher, it seems that being a kid isn't valued anymore. We are constantly trying to balance the seesaw that is us and our surroundings. Sometimes, that takes away from how present we can be in our lives.
— Aina, 17, El Paso, Texas
I'm one of very few openly queer people at my high school. Despite my generation being one of the most accepting so far, there's still a prominent culture of homophobia in many schools, especially in the South. Homophobic bullying is an incredibly tough thing to go through, especially when your friends—a main support system—aren't well enough to lean on for support. All of it makes me feel ostracized and alone which has led directly to the depression I've experienced. Outside of school, I feel fine, as I have a good family and plenty of other things that bring me joy. I'm not a depressed person inherently, but my school environment makes me one.
At my school, there is only one counselor and she is hard to get a meeting with because there's so many people who need her help. Then, when you do get to see her, the session always feels rushed and never ends up really helping. Everyone could benefit from having someone to talk to. People in crisis would of course talk to counselors the most, but everyone should have someone to talk to, even if they just want to tell them about their day.
— Catherine, 16, Arlington, Texas
Young people in the South are speaking out on their mental health challenges and anxieties—like climate change, gun violence, anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, and lack of access to care in schools. Advocating for themselves requires sharing their perspectives.
As a resident assistant (RA), I have had to intervene in situations where students deal with suicidal ideation and want to avoid the carceral forces of involuntary hospitalization. In the few years I have spent in Tennessee, students have dealt with the killing of Tyre Nichols, attacks on trans people, and most recently Vanderbilt University Medical Center turning over medical records of trans patients to the state. These issues disproportionately affect students of color, trans and queer students, and poor students at our college.
I wish people knew that many times, young people are dealing with crises such as homelessness, abuse, and attacks by the state, while also working jobs, and even organizing to save themselves. Young people are dealing with a convergence of issues while also having little hope for what the future looks like. Yet, we continue to organize, as we need help fostering that hope through intergenerational community building.
Access to consistent therapy, perhaps in a group setting and in person could make an unimaginable difference in our daily lives. Having more access to public spaces for recreation, and not having to worry about daily or weekly expenses and day-to-day costs of living would dramatically increase our quality of life.
— Induja, 20, Tennessee
The best way I can describe being a young person today is that it's like your life is starting in a world that feels like it's ending or getting worse. Coming from a public high school that had virtually no specific resources for mental health, if I or my friends wanted help for anything from social life stress to deeper anxieties about gun violence and the climate crisis, we would have specific teachers that were connected to their students and genuinely supportive. However, the teachers were doing that outside of their actual jobs. Schools need people whose sole job is to provide mental health support to students, who receive training in the kind of support that reflects the current socio-political climate. I think kids need better legislation, less policing in schools, policies that tackle climate change so they know that their education has a future and college admissions stop increasingly looking like The Hunger Games. But these things are hard to do.
— Lajward, 18, Houston, Texas
Growing up in Nigeria, I was taught to understand mental health as a myth, trained to believe that revealing the fragile parts of myself suggested I was weak and would not survive in the real world. I witnessed my own mom falling apart daily, ignored and left without resources and care. While my migration to the United States introduced a new world of issues, I expected to leave the problems I saw in Nigeria in my past. Yet, as I have lived in America, I observe the same issues. As my teachers mouth to myself and my peers to "toughen up, people are going through worse," I watch children being trained to function as robots, disconnecting from their emotions and the parts of themselves that make them human.
Schools are becoming less and less of a haven—as are homes and communities. Every day, decisions are made for me that make me feel unimportant. Why is it that my rights are constantly being challenged? Through my experience with inadequate support from education systems and a lack of government measures, I have come to realize that it is up to community members and organizations to take action to protect themselves. Our voices matter.
— Mujeebat, 18, Houston, Texas
There needs to be more educators and school counselors of color in K-12 institutions. I grew up in a predominately Black and brown area before moving to a predominately white one towards the end of middle school and for high school. While in middle school, I was called the n-word by one of my white peers. I did not tell any teachers about this incident, knowing this student would not receive any consequences for their actions. The worst part was how unfazed I was when it happened since I had expected this to happen being me—a little, awkward, quiet Black girl being called the n-word by a privileged white boy obsessed with Black culture while I minded my own business in eighth grade P.E. I was unfazed due to the racial gaslighting that I experienced throughout that time and up until now—even at a predominantly Black university. Racial gaslighting allows people to racist without "explicitly" being racist.
— Anonymous, 19, Georgia
It would really help if we had a grief counselor. We had multiple students pass away, and we were just told to go to our regular counselors. Their main focus is our classes, not grief. I also think that any counselor to help with the students' mental health would be greatly helpful. I had a close family member die a couple years ago and I was only excused from one day of school since it wasn't a parent, grandparent, or sibling. My school suffered the loss of a student two years ago, and those that were close to him were just expected to act like it didn't affect them. A lot of students don't like talking about their mental health struggles with fellow teachers and students. But they're real and a lot of students go through them.
— Saira, 17, West Virginia
Until recently, I hadn't given much thought to mental health. But going back to in-person school felt very annoying to me. My grades started to drop. I just didn't care much and didn't like being there. So, my mom found a therapist for me. I started to understand mental health isn't just about being mentally ill. It's also about recognizing your feelings and how they affect your behavior and life choices. I'm glad my parents have resources like health insurance so I could get matched to a therapist I was comfortable talking to. I know not everybody has that privilege.
We look at adults and wonder why they can't or won't do better for our sake. Adults are supposed to set an example, but many of them set a very bad one. Some don't appreciate diversity. Some don't respect the Earth. Some care more about money than people. They will leave a mess for us. They should be ashamed.
Healthcare should be free, including mental healthcare. Getting an education in a healthcare field should be more affordable, so there's enough doctors and therapists. And we should let people know that you can get help just to improve yourself as a person.
— Sky, 13, Baton Rouge, Louisiana
This collection of reflections is part of a series curated by author, journalist, and youth mentor Rainesford Stauffer. In Their Own Words: The Youth Mental Health Crisis was made possible through the sponsorship of The Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism.