Many public health officials agree that we’re in the middle of a youth mental health crisis that has only been exacerbated by the pandemic. In response, the Oregon nonprofit MediaRites created a new project giving youth the space to share their own stories of struggles with mental health. It’s called the ‘Ism Youth Files’ and will feature a resource toolkit, podcasts, and short films featuring youth stories. Dmae Roberts, the Executive Producer of MediaRites, and Jenell Theobald, one of the youth featured in the project, join us to talk about their experiences.
Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: Many public health officials agree that we are in the middle of a youth mental health crisis when it’s only been made worse by the pandemic. In response, the Oregon nonprofit MediaRites created a new project to give young people the space to share their own stories of mental health struggles and support. It’s called the ISM Youth Files. It includes a resource toolkit, podcasts and short films featuring the stories of young people. I talked about this project recently with Dmae Roberts, the executive producer of MediaRites and Jenell Theobald, one of the young people who is featured in it. She is a sophomore at the International School of Beaverton. I started by asking Roberts why she created this project.
Dmae Roberts: During the pandemic, I heard so many stories of young people who were struggling from families and from friends of family. And of course, there was so much happening with the isolation. I really felt like it was time to focus the ISM project on youth and on mental health because there were just staggering statistics at the time. There still are especially regarding suicide and prevention of suicide, the need for it. As a group at MediaRites, I turned to the board and I just said let’s go back to finding something that is of importance regarding mental health and youth. So we started fundraising for that and it took a while. So last fall we were able to start asking for submissions from youth. And the stories were so amazing to us that it was really hard to choose but we have 20 writers and I think what it will be is a document of the pandemic and what young people were going through during the pandemic and going back to school, going back to finding what the new normal is and ongoing mental health struggles.
Miller: Jenell, why did you want to take part in this? Why? Why did you think it’s important to have people hear stories about mental health from young people right now?
Jenell Theobold: Well, the mental health crisis is really severe, especially during the pandemic. According to the Journal of American Medical Association Pediatrics, 1/4 of students report symptoms of depression, but many people just aren’t aware of the problem or they’re only vaguely aware and have no idea what to actually do about it. But if we hear from people who actually have these experiences, it can help us to understand what they’re going through and what we can do to help.
Miller: What were the last two years like for you?
Theobold: I think the pandemic really took a toll on my mental health. Everyone was affected but people like me were especially hit hard. I have autism. So I am not the best at socialization. School is usually my main way of making friends. But suddenly that was taken away from me. Suddenly I was lonely and I didn’t have anyone to reach out to. That really contributed to my depression.
Miller: In your essay that you wrote for the project, you say that as a young person on the autism spectrum, you’re different and an outsider. Has being treated as an outsider, that itself, affected your mental health?
Theobold: Yeah. I’ve always struggled to fit in and as a kid, I was bullied and excluded by fifth grade. I had switched schools seven different times, just trying to find a good fit.
Miller: Seven schools by fifth grade?
Theobold: Yeah, I don’t even remember all of their names. I just never felt like I belonged anywhere. It was very lonely. I will admit that I thought there was something wrong with me because there was no one to get me. I think that also contributed to my depression. I don’t think that most people act with malicious intent, but even so it’s still hurtful.
Miller: You also wrote about the death by suicide of somebody who was in a class you were taking. How did that impact you?
Theobold: I knew suicide was a thing and I heard about it in school before and I heard the news that this person had committed suicide, but were people that I didn’t know such as a relative that I had never met or family and friends that I didn’t know or just some supposedly famous person that I’ve never heard of. And even though I knew mentally that it was a problem, it just didn’t really feel like a problem. I never thought it would happen to anyone that I knew or that it would be obvious if they wanted to kill themselves. But then my classmate committed suicide. This blew away my that it can’t happen here mindset and it was a wake up call about the severity of the mental health crisis.
Miller: I should mention for our listeners that if you or somebody is struggling, you can now call or text the new National Suicide Prevention Hotline with the shortened number. You can call or text 988 to reach help right now. Dmae, I’m curious when you looked at all the stories from around the country and as you noted around the world that came in, what were some of the themes that really started to coalesce?
Roberts: Well, the biggest, of course, was social isolation and what Jenelle spoke of, so many young people went through that. Also, there were a few that actually enjoyed the social isolation. A lot of them have had bullying experiences and sometimes. Especially if you experience social anxiety, it probably was a relief to some other young people to be able to have a change in that routine of being with so many people at one time. There were stories about just dealing with COVID-19 and having family members die or being sick and just the impact and the stress and the emotional exhaustion of that. There are also stories about depression of course that also goes along with anxiety quite often. There were stories about people who were going back to school and some of that wasn’t actually as great of an experience for some of them going back to school and being in a school or a crowded hallway with or without masks and there was still uncertainty about health and safety. Then there were stories of course, about one story, especially about how being online produced more of an eating disorder for one young woman and because of that she was so self critical and she attempted suicide a couple of times and and how she got help. There were stories about therapy too, about how it helps or even just the difficulty of getting the right kind of therapist, especially if you have multiple diagnoses, especially if you’re a youth with disabilities, it just becomes even more problematic to find the right person. Also, the majority of our writers were AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) and racism does play into mental health. The statistics are staggering about AAPI hate crimes and how they were on the rise during the pandemic and still are. And so that has had a detrimental effect. And so many of our writers did write about that as well.
Miller: Jenell, you wrote about both the challenges that you’ve been facing but also the work you’ve been doing in various ways in the community. I want to turn to that. You’ve been working to gain recognition for people buried in what’s known as Block 14 at Portland’s historic Lone Fir Cemetery Cemetery. Can you describe what you’ve been doing there?
Theobold: I originally heard about this project from Lone Fir Cemetery Foundation who had just reached out to the Asian community and I want to advocate for people and groups of people who are marginalized or have been in the past. Block 14 is an important piece of history. People may have read about Chinese workers on the transcontinental railroad but don’t realize that they built a lot of important infrastructure in this area, too. And the primitive state of mental health care in those days is also not talked about very much. Block 14 contains the remains of patients of the Oregon Hospital for the Insane. The owner, Dr. Hawthorne, paid out of his own pocket to have them buried, not just mentally ill people, but those who are physically disabled, had missing family, didn’t speak English or their behavior just wasn’t accepted by society. The story really resonated with me both as part of the Asian community and as someone with mental disabilities. So I was the first one to answer the Foundation’s call. I wrote a sample letter and sent it to some social groups that I’m in. This prompted 25 other students to also write their own letters. And because of this, Metro allocated $4 million dollars to the project. All those people and their stories now won’t just be lost to history.
Roberts: That was a long time in coming. There’s been a history of Lone Fir Cemetery not being recognized and for Janell to speak out the way she did and raise awareness was pretty phenomenal.
Miller: You also started a group called Let’s Peer Up that advocates for awareness and representation of people with disabilities. Can you talk about what that looked like in Beaverton?
Theobold: In Beaverton for many years, they didn’t have any kind of a board or department or anything to serve people with disabilities. I remember we were asking where to go for disability support and they couldn’t give us a consistent answer, even people who were in the community. I remember one of them said, well maybe human rights and another one thought about human resources, but there was nothing. That’s not just Beaverton because I also did research and I found out that of the 30 biggest cities in Oregon, Portland is the only one that has a board to serve people with disabilities. That’s a problem. So we convinced Beaverton to create the ADA (American with Disability Act) Technical Advisory Committee. It took a lot of work. We talked at many of the city council meetings and other committee meetings. I also talked to the mayor and they worked with city staff and connected them with Jeffrey Dougan from the Massachusetts Office on Disability as Massachusetts has probably the best disability support system in the country. And, finally they created the committee and now I serve on it.
Miller: How is working to help other people either–alive or dead–how has it affected your own mental health?
Theobold: Funny story. I’ve read that some people speculate that Mozart was mentally ill and writing music was his way of self medicating. I think that maybe advocacy work is my way of self medicating. It helps me feel like I have a real purpose in life and I get to meet like-minded people and make new friends. I feel good about helping other people. I get to have new experiences that I wouldn’t have otherwise just escape the staleness of being at home all the time.
Miller: What message do you have, Jenell, for young people right now who are struggling with their mental health?
Theobold: Well, I would tell them, don’t give up. There are people out there who are just like you. Some of them are still struggling. Some of them have incredibly inspiring stories, but there’s still hope that a lot of people can feel like they’re alone. Just remember that there are people who love you and they’re willing to support you. Please reach out and don’t feel like you’re burdening anyone else with your problems because you’re really not. A lot of people think that it’s weak to seek help, but really it actually takes courage to open up and be vulnerable. That’s probably one of the best things that you can do for yourself.
Miller: Jenell Theobald and Dmae Roberts, thanks very much.
Roberts: Thank you. Dave
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