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Listening and telling the stories of the youth mental health crisis

This article is a joint publication of Zócalo Public Square and State of minda partnership between Slate and Arizona State University focused on mental health coverage.

My depression was triggered by The Lion King. Watching Scar throw Simba’s dad to death, I started crying and couldn’t stop. I was 11 years old, scared that something would happen to my mother – my lifeline and the parent who had pulled us out of an abusive situation six years earlier. That night it felt like a dark room opened up in my chest, filled with feelings I couldn’t name.

The room stayed with me – sometimes getting bigger and bigger, containing despair and instances of self-harm, and sometimes emptying out, only to be filled again with a new sense of despair. Ashamed of this endless loop, I struggled to integrate mental illness into my personal narrative.

These feelings were the catalyst for my new children’s novel, Zia erase the world, the story of an 11-year-old girl facing her first depression. Zia doesn’t know how to talk about her chamber of shadows, which she calls the Shadoom, and keeps her secret locked inside. By discovering a magical dictionary capable of erasing entire concepts from existence, Zia erases fear, pain and sadness. Once the world has collapsed, she must fix it.

When I speak in schools across the country, I share two stories: Zia’s and my own. I recognize that today’s students face realities I never imagined, from accelerating climate change to active fire drills. In 2019 more than 1 in 3 high school students experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, a 40% increase since 2009. That same year, 21% of American children reported having had a major depressive episode at some point.

In December 2021, American Surgeon General Vivek Murthy released a landmark advisory on the youth mental health crisis – which he called “alarming” before the pandemic and “devastating” after a year and a half of quarantines and isolation.

But if tweens and teens had the chance to shape their own stories, what would they say?

I decided to find out by talking to them directly. Most of the young people I interviewed were strangers to me. But after more than a dozen interviews, I got to know Diemond, Camryn, Iona, Jaime, Wyatt, and Rayan, all of whom asked me to use their first names for this piece. “Depression feels like a bad dream,” said Diemond, a 19-year-old from New York. “The same dream over and over again, and you can’t wake up.”

Camryn, an 18-year-old from Illinois, described depression as “much more than just a feeling of sadness. It’s those ups and downs. I feel empty and have no motivation to get out of bed, brush my hair, brush my teeth.

Iona spoke to me outside their therapist’s office, two days before their 11th birthday. For them, the depression started out as numbness. “When my dog ​​got sick, I felt absolutely nothing. I couldn’t cry or cry. It was hard. My dog ​​died and I didn’t feel anything. It was like a snail dying.

I try to incorporate mental illness into my narrative. And by naming my innermost pain, my darkest secret, I hope to help young people feel the same thing they made me feel: less alone.

“I got worse,” Iona continued. “I started to feel again and I wanted to hurt myself.” These desires “didn’t scare me at the time – I just thought they were normal and it happened to everyone. Now that I’m better and on medication, I realize that these weren’t normal thoughts.

As I conducted more interviews, I noticed that young people who identified as female or non-binary talked about depression more. Those who identified as men spoke more about anxiety. My sample size was admittedly small—According to the CDC, boys and girls report similar levels of anxiety. But statistics show higher rates of depression, suicidal ideation and suicide attempts among girls.

Jaime, a fifth-grade student from Los Angeles, told me over the phone how he tries to stave off his anxiety attacks by focusing on something else. “But sometimes it feels like you’re delaying the feeling, and then it builds up like boiling water. You get this low heat and it starts to simmer, and then you notice it and think, “I have to turn the heat down.” But at some point, you just have to throw the pasta away. You have to let it boil. And then let it go. Just try not to burn down the house.

Despite the topic, these conversations weren’t depressing. A mother said her son came out of his bedroom “looking a foot taller”. He told her, “It felt so good to talk about everything.”

It was the common thread of all the interviews: talking helps. Young people don’t want to be strength talk, but having even one person they feel safe to open up to makes a huge difference, whether it’s a teacher, therapist, parent, or friend.

For 13-year-old Wyatt, the anxiety and depression started in third grade. “My uncle, my grandmother, my cousin and my cat all died, which was quite difficult for me,” he said. Eventually he tried to advise. It took a few counselors to find the right person, but the second gave Wyatt tools that helped him through the heartbreak. “In my house, we had this little corner with soft blankets and squishy things. Me and my mom installed it. It was like you were being hugged by a whole bunch of penguins. We called it the “Cozy Corner”. I could go lie down and bury myself for a few minutes or a few hours, close my eyes and relax.

Unsurprisingly, the pandemic returned often and many recognized a pervasive sense of loss. “I’m 11,” Jaime said. “Covid was 25% of my life. When things finally started to look up, my mom took me to Trader Joe’s, and I walked around remembering half the store’s products. ‘Look at the Fig Newtons! Look at the mango popsicles! I had the time of my life. It was only later that I became sad. I realized that I missed a lot of my childhood.

Rayan, a high school student from Syracuse, used the time to be more creative. “I created my very first documentary during the pandemic,” she told me. “It covered my daily routine, coming to the United States, fears of being a foreigner. I have so many things that people hate. I’m black, I’m Muslim, I’m female.

When I asked Rayan about mental health, she said she didn’t like talking about her emotions. But look at her calm and haunting documentarythere, it is quite clear that she has found other means of expression. “When I write, it’s kind of like I’m talking to my emotions,” she said. “If no one is listening, at least my notebook will listen to me.”

As a writer, I believe in the power of artistic expression to heal, comfort and connect. Shaping our own stories can help us find the light amid the shadows: something the tweens and teens I spoke to did with amazing clarity and courage.

As a child, I was lucky to have adults in my life that I could open up to. After The Lion King, I told my mom how I felt and she immediately found a mental health professional to help me. Even so, it took many years before I could find the right words for my experience. But as I speak more publicly about my depression as a result of Zia erase the world, it put me on a path parallel to that of Zia. Inspired by the honesty of the children and young adults I have met, I try to incorporate mental illness into my storytelling. And by naming my innermost pain, my darkest secret, I hope to help young people feel the same thing they made me feel: less alone.

During my last visit to the school, a fifth-grade student asked, “When did your Shadoom leave?”

The answer, like depression itself, is complicated. It went away, and it didn’t work.

But what I told him – what I tell everyone I talk to – is that you always add tools to help you take care of yourself. Therapy. Medication. Friends. Art. Music. Books. If you can name your own darkroom, the people in your life can rise up to meet you. Mental health struggles become a means of connection, not isolation. And instead of erasing your story, you tell it as a way to survive.

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