Over the past few years especially, I've found myself spending more and more time considering what my responsibility is as a journalist, particularly as one who frequently speaks to teenagers and young adults.
That question of responsibility is multilayered, especially given how often "listening to youth" becomes–unintentionally or otherwise–tokenizing or dismissive, operating under the assumption that all young people are the same, or that in order for a young person's perspective to matter, it should sound like it came from an adult.
This means questioning my own role in systems, examining where I've fallen short, and staying open to learning. What am I doing to reduce barriers, to be a collaborator in sharing someone's story, not extracting something from them, to center someone's agency, to dismantle power dynamics, to think about larger ramifications of a piece beyond the byline at the top? How am I stepping back, and passing the mic?
When I first began thinking about this project, and brought it to Ko Bragg, a writer and editor whose voice and vision are second-to-none, that was the idea: give young people resources and support to explore themes related to mental health, on their own terms and in their own words. This package, In Their Own Words, includes four pieces by young contributors, in addition to eight reflections by young people on mental health and what they want adults to know about how it feels to be growing up right now.
This project wouldn't exist without the support of Scalawag, whose journalism and storytelling is the kind I aspire to, and The Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism. Young contributors pitched these pieces themselves. While they were provided project parameters and went through editing processes, the issues and framing came from them. They were compensated for their work, and when the timeline of the project extended, we were able to increase compensation to better reflect an equitable editorial process.
Across the South, young people are enduring the impacts of the climate crisis, ongoing erasure of non-white history in schools and efforts to ban books, gun violence, anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, and lack of access to resources, including healthcare, equitable wages, and mental health support and care. They aren't just paying attention. They are directly impacted.
'Young people need power.' Southern students on safety, accountability, and what they need from adults
"Do something. Pass legislation. 'Thoughts and prayers' without action to prevent tragedy is faith without works."
At the same time, young people are engaged community members, organizers, writers, and people who exist in their own fullness–who deserve to be taken seriously in their work, ideas, and lives. Being tasked with saving a world that often seems hellbent on rebreaking itself as you grow up in it has always seemed like an impossible expectation. (Acknowledging the work and agency of young people should not remove accountability and responsibility of adults, too.) Grappling with both the extraordinary capacity of youth, as we've seen throughout history, and expectations placed on them seems critical.
Young people, of course, are not a monolith, and these stories do not capture every experience. There were so many directions this project could've gone, and so many incredible pieces it could've included. This project isn't giving young people a voice. Their voices are all their own. Instead, it seeks to offer a platform, resources, and support to capture what's on their minds in their own words. We need more opportunities for youth-centered storytelling and journalistic work. This project is one, small piece of that.
Youth Call for More Mental Health Support
When Cloud, a 20-year-old college student, was in 10th grade, their mental health was deteriorating. As the pandemic shifted classes online during Cloud's 11th grade year, everything got worse. Cloud, who had already experienced self-harm and multiple suicide attempts, felt isolated, losing friends because they didn't want to talk to anyone. "I was just nonexistent to the world," they said.
In their New Orleans high school, mental health wasn't talked about, Cloud said, and students were often taken out of class because they were putting their heads down, seen as not paying attention. In reality, Cloud said, they were going to work right after school, responsible for taking care of their families and totally exhausted. For Cloud, there was pressure to confront generational trauma. "They never gave us the resources to help us; they never sat down and talked to us. So we always had to figure it out on our own," Cloud added.
Cloud's experience also crashed against the reality that mental healthcare resources and support are often inaccessible to young people. In Cloud's case, their family's insurance didn't cover mental health. It wasn't until later that they eventually received the care they needed, and diagnoses of bipolar disorder, anxiety, and depression.
Nearly a dozen interviews with kids and parents in Florida, Louisiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Texas emphasize a need to fundamentally rethink much of education—including the myth that schools operate separately from family life.
They also heard from friends about their own needs, and the refrain was often the same. "Oh, my family doesn't have the money for that. My family doesn't have the resources for that," Cloud said. "And I'm like, Okay, now this is a huge problem."
It's referred to as a youth mental health crisis, in which more than one in three students reported experiencing poor mental health throughout the pandemic. According to some young people, that compounds on a crisis of resources, support, and growing up in a world that often seems more willing to strip away your autonomy than help you.
Throughout the South, legislators continue to push anti-LGBTQ legislation, which directly harms young people. Southern states are enduring the impacts of the climate crisis. The ramifications of gun violence and police presence at school continue. Young people are grappling with grief, basic needs insecurity, and shortages of mental healthcare professionals.
But there are solutions. The American Psychological Association detailed some: changing policies at the school or district level to provide support for students, and training programs focused on helping teachers and students create supportive classrooms. Reporting from Capital B outlined the necessity of more school counselors, and the impact of lack of counselors on Black students in particular. Addressing ongoing attacks on marginalized young people in schools is necessary to the well-being and safety of youth. There are ongoing demands for a social safety net that ensures basic needs are met–something critical to mental health.
Much research and reporting emphasizes the importance of listening to young people in regard to mental health. That includes hearing their solutions, which some young people are working on enacting themselves.
That includes Cloud, who, upon arrival at a predominantly white college town, realized there was access to free therapy and nurses. Now, Cloud is a Changemaker with New Deal for Youth, which advocates for new systems, policies, and investments that reimagine life for young people in America. Their framework centers on reparations, liberation, decriminalization, and abolition, with lists of demands that include more access to mental health resources, including in schools.
Part of Cloud's work includes hosting New Deal for Youth's mental health podcast. But they are also thinking about resources that the government can provide–including accessible counseling they found once at college. "What do we need to do to help you with this process of providing those resources for us and making it available for everybody, and not just the rich community and whatnot?" they asked.
Where Support Meets Advocacy
For some organizations, supporting young people's mental health and supporting their advocacy work goes hand-in-hand. The Alliance for LGBTQ Youth, an organization that provides a "comprehensive care system" to LGBTQ young people in Miami-Dade County at no cost, also has a leadership institute for young people ages 13 to 20.
"Working with youth through a comprehensive system of care looks like knowing that the person you're working with is a part of a whole entire system, and a lot of the things that they're moving through are tied to each other," said Amber Manker, LCSW, a clinical manager at the Alliance. Manker is focused on providing gender-affirming therapy, moving into family work to create more opportunities for support, and, in individual counseling, teaching young people how to "increase coping around what they're moving through, but also how to resist." The Alliance acknowledges young people are complex and multifaceted, and approach the work holistically. This model means that individual care does not function in a silo, separate from systems of oppression.
Then, once young people have begun building internal care and developing those tools, the youth leadership institute supports them in recognizing the power they have, and giving them resources to help shift material conditions, explained Sabrina Diaz, an Alliance Fellow who runs the leadership institute.
Some of that demands supporting young people as they call out adultism, Diaz said, which manifests as a pattern of disrespect to young people, stripping them of autonomy they are ironically encouraged to have later in life, when expectations of adulthood demand that one advocates for themselves.
"We know we need these resources, we know who should be providing these resources, and I think folks really struggle to see how to do it," Diaz said. That's why organizing is key. Throughout history, Diaz added, that's how material conditions have changed. "We need everyone's input in order to create wellness that is holistic and to create a structure that works for as many folks as possible," Diaz said.
Youth Rise Texas also offers models for youth mental health support, including a school-based healing program for young people impacted by parental incarceration, detention, or deportation, and a previous program focused on tools for healing that included art, expert talks, and group-based conversations. The Healing Justice programs give young people more chances for support–something as critical as understaffing and inadequate funding remain barriers to school-based services.
"I did have interaction with my counselor where I was really struggling with mental health, and I really needed resources. I did mention that I could not pay for resources," Near, a 16-year-old student in Texas, said. But the counselor provided a list of options Near's family couldn't afford. When they moved Near to a different counselor, that person didn't respond to emails. "I did miss a couple of days of school, which was really hard," Near added.
They've found a safe space, they said, as part of Youth Rise Texas, where Near has helped with research, interviewing students on mental health resources, the impact of School Resource Officers (SROs) in their schools, finances, and more. As part of a project, Near is creating Lotería cards that include their Latinx culture and illustrate how healing justice and climate change intersect. In their own experience, Near said that having access to free therapists at school would help, as would removing SROs from schools. Carrying guns, Near noted, is a form of violence–one that gives you the urge to hide your backpack, even if you know you aren't hiding anything.
"How are you going to create change if you do not know what young people go through?" Near asked. "For them to be part of change is to know their struggles, and for them to be able to take part."
IN THEIR OWN WORDS: THE YOUTH MENTAL HEALTH CRISIS
Mira Ugwuadu (she/they) is a student at Washington University in St. Louis who recently graduated from Wheeler High School in Cobb County, GA. She is passionate about mental health advocacy and social justice, and she intends to pursue a medical career in order to make healthcare, especially mental health care, more equitable and accessible.
Marrow Woods (they/them) is a queer and disabled writer and organizer based on the traditional homelands of the Mvskoke and Hitchiti peoples, now known as Macon, GA. Woods is a 3rd-year English and Religion, Philosophy, and Social Change BA student at Wesleyan College. Their work and practice centers communal dreaming (especially for queer, trans, and disabled futures), community care, and critical narrative shift frameworks born from tales crafted from viscera and bone.
Lauren Barton is an early-career journalist based in Dandridge, Tennessee, where she covers local LGBTQ+ legislation and Internet culture. Currently studying at a local community college, her work and opinions have made their way into NBC News, The Poynter Institute, The Tennessee Holler, and others. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter at @laurenbarton03
Ray Loux, 17, is a transgender high school student from Kentucky. He became involved in political activism when extreme anti-trans bills were introduced in his state. Since then, he has been inspired to share his experiences and work to cultivate a sense of community among LGBTQ individuals in Kentucky.
Eight reflections on how it feels to grow up in the South amid climate crisis, the erasure of non-white history in schools, book bans, gun violence, anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, and lack of mental health support—from the mouths of youth living through it.
These stories are part of a series is 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.