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From teen girls to senators, mental health headlines are everywhere. How do we cover it and what do we make of it?
I spoke with three young women to try to make sense of the recent headlines.
The content below discusses mental health. If you’re struggling, the 988 lifeline is there to help. Please dial 988 or visit 988lifeline.org.
It’s no secret that young Americans are struggling with mental health.
But since a CDC report came out last week providing further insight into just how bad teen girls’ mental health really is, it seems like everyone’s paying attention.
The CDC data illustrates a stark reality. The number of teen girls who “felt persistently sad or hopeless” increased drastically from 36% in 2011 to 57% in 2021.
Teen boys report struggling with their mental health too, but at a lower rate: 21% of teen boys “felt persistently sad or hopeless” in 2011, while 29% said the same in 2021.
This data, which also showed an increase in teen girls’ experiences with violence and suicidal thoughts and heightened concerns for young members of the LGBTQ community, is the latest in a slew of research about young people’s mental health.
It seems like in a post-Covid world – whether through the mainstream media, our own social feeds, or even conversations with friends – we’re getting almost daily info about just how sad and lonely we, as a collective of young people, all are. And there are so many factors we could point to as potential causes.
This isn’t breaking news, but at the same time, there’s been a huge push to talk about it– in classrooms, with friends, and ironically, on the very platforms that have likely contributed to the problem.
Amid the buzzy coverage on teen girls’ mental health in the past couple of weeks, there was another major news story. Pennsylvania Senator John Fetterman checked himself into the hospital “to receive treatment for clinical depression,” his office announced.
“After examining John, the doctors at Walter Reed told us that John is getting the care he needs, and will soon be back to himself,” the statement said.
According to Fetterman’s chief of staff Adam Jentleson, the outpouring of support that followed was palpable. In a tweet describing the response, Jentleson wrote, “People like and relate to John - sometimes it’s that simple.”
While Fetterman’s transparency about his own mental health and the staggering data on teen girls isn’t directly related, as we think about young people’s mental health and the type of environment we’re fostering for the next generation of leaders – both in and out of the political sphere – it’s important to talk about how people with platforms can utilize them for good. And, let’s face it, we all have platforms – whether it’s an Instagram account with 100 followers or a TikTok page with 1 million.
But in working to further destigmatize conversations about mental health, it’s also worth asking the questions: Should we expect transparency around issues this personal? How do we normalize conversations about mental health without making a spectacle out of what someone is going through?
In an effort to make sense of that myself, I reached out to three young women with experience in the political or mental health space for their input. Their experiences are different and speak to the range of perspectives on the topic.
Here are some snip-its from our conversations:
Annie Wu Henry: The 27-year-old former social media producer for John Fetterman’s 2022 campaign and a digital and social media strategist for progressive organizations and causes
Asked about how Senator Fetterman’s decision to proverbially say it’s ok to not be ok could impact a generation of young Americans who are more open, straightforward, and at times brash than our older counterparts, Annie Wu Henry emphasized the example the Pennsylvania senator is setting by sharing his own experience.
“If there’s an increase of people feeling this way and having this experience, seeing it on such a large platform being talked about and understanding other people experience it too, even people in very high up positions of power, that has the potential to make people not feel alone and destigmatize what people are experiencing,” she said.
Not only did Fetterman come forward with his own experience, but as Henry put it, he took “an additional step” by using his fundraising list to ask supporters to donate to mental health organizations. That decision could help make resources and support more available for others.
Fetterman’s former social media producer, in part responsible for showing his relatability and sense of humor, lauded the senator’s two-pronged approach to raising awareness and directing resources to the cause — but said it’s important to have a realistic understanding of expectations around politicians (or any public persona) and their health.
She emphasized that honesty from those in power and elected officials about the most intimate aspects of their lives, isn’t a requirement, but rather a personal choice.
“Elected officials are humans too,” Henry said. “Nobody is inherently owed someone talking about trauma or personal experiences, the things personal to them.”
And yet, because of a movement to be more honest and authentic on the internet after years of filters and photoshop, young people crave authenticity — and raw personality.
“We are exposed to so much of everything and there’s also the widespread availability of finding the information, on people, issues, whatever it might be,” said Henry.
She added that while it’s not necessary for those in the public eye to be so raw, it may do a disservice to those watching if they aren’t.
“Young people are like, ‘Why wouldn’t you just be truthful from the start?’ Because either it will come out on its own eventually, or there’s potential that someone not being honest can have negative impacts,” Henry said.
Gigi Robinson: 24-year-old motivational speaker and health advocate
Gigi Robinson, a motivational speaker and health advocate, was diagnosed with endometriosis in December. Having struggled with chronic illness for years, she’s used social media to “show the gamut of what it’s like living with health issues.”
“I really started sharing my journey because I just felt simply alone,” Robinson said. “I imagined that I wasn’t the only one feeling that way. If sharing my story is a thing that catches press’ attention, and raises awareness, and makes other people feel less alone, then I’ve done my job.”
Though Robinson has publicly shared her own experience in hopes of helping others, she’s not a health professional. When posting about mental health online, she thinks it’s incumbent on creators and people with huge platforms to share educational resources and direct their followers to foundations engaged in the space.
Asked about what it means for someone with such a public profile to share the details of their personal health, Robinson said she has gotten comments asking why she shares something that’s “too intimate.”
But she thinks that attitude is outdated. “I’m like, ‘Well, what if it helps somebody live a better life or get a diagnosis or treatment in a way they couldn’t have?’” she said.
I asked Robinson if she thinks our generation expects that openness and vulnerability from the people they follow online or look up to in the public sphere.
“I don’t think we expect it. But I do think on a personal level, we’re inclined to share it,” she said. “Not because it’s trendy, but because there’s power in numbers. And when more people say, ‘Oh I’m struggling with this,’ not that it’s normalized, but more people relate, and they can build better relationships and communities by being more vulnerable.”
“The biggest thing after Covid – as the loneliest generation, the first digitally native generation – it’s imperative to think about seeking connection,” Robinson said. “If our struggles are the thing that builds that connection for us - politics aside, socioeconomic background aside, culturally aside – if our struggles are what bring us together, then so be it.”
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Zion Williams: 17-year-old mental health advocate and former host of teen mental health podcast ‘On Our Minds’
Zion Williams, who hosted the teen mental health podcast produced by PBS News Hour and Student Reporting Labs’ ‘On Our Minds,’ in 2021, said the data on teen girls’ mental health doesn’t surprise her – at all.
As a creator in the mental health space, she said it “means a lot” when people in positions of power talk about their own struggles.
“When senators and politicians come out and talk about their mental health, it encourages everyone to talk about their mental health as well. Like when celebrities talk about it. [It’s like], ‘If they’re talking about it, why can’t I?’” Williams said.
She said she was inspired to start creating content about mental health because she recognized that her friends were craving relatable conversations about the topic, and she wanted to learn more about her own mental health by talking about it, too.
She said some of the most informative conversations she’s had have been with mental health professionals, psychologists, and professors.
In the news 🗞
Of the many headlines this week, here’s one of my favorites:
What’s really behind the wave of sadness among teenage girls? We asked 9 of them., Kalhan Rosenblatt for NBC News