How TeenzTalk Offers Hope and Solutions to Teens in Crisis
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Nadia Ghaffari, 17, from Los Altos California, founded TeenzTalk.org in March 2016: A website for teenagers, run by teenagers, dedicated to providing a supportive environment to "empower teens by harnessing peer-to-peer connections." In this interview she shares her vision for teen mental health, highlights her TEDx Talk, and shares her views on 13 Reasons Why.
You founded TeenzTalk in March 2016 in response to the suicide clusters in your neighborhood, and having helped a close friend through a suicidal experience. What did you most want to convey to your friend in her darkest moment?
I wanted to convey to my friend two things: first, that help and hope are real, and second, that she is not alone. My friend felt like she had to hide all the difficult emotions she was feeling, and she kept them all locked up inside until she no longer knew how to hold on. I wanted to give her and all teens a space to start conversations about how we’re feeling, about our mental health experiences, and about how we can get well together. It’s a whole different approach once we know about the resources available to help us feel well, and that we’re alongside our peers in this fight for mental wellness. TeenzTalk is a platform for all teens to come together in a positive environment, sharing stories, coping strategies, and resources so that our peers can get information, comfort, and feel like part of a community.
What are your thoughts on 13 Reasons Why and how does this impact your mission?
I started watching 13 Reasons Why the day it came out on Netflix. I saw it on the home page, and as I saw it was about a teen suicide, it interested me. I was surprised at the extremely graphic scenes and imagery; I wasn’t expecting that at all. One of the problems with the series is that it does not tie Hannah Baker’s death to mental illness; it actually blames her suicide on what people did to her, romanticizing it further. It’s important to acknowledge that suicide is a result of mental illness, and the series never explains this. I think another big point the series misses is that there are absolutely ways to seek help, and suicide is not the only option. The series doesn’t show any effective ways of seeking help, which is why it inspires “copycat” behavior in viewers who are hurting or vulnerable. This really doesn’t change our mission of starting conversations and harnessing peer support in any way – but it does make it that much more important. It’s essential for anyone who chooses to watch the series to talk to someone they trust about it every step of the way. I recommend checking out this website for talking points: https://www.jedfoundation.org/13-reasons-why-talking-points/.
In your view, what support was missing in the lives of these teens who sadly died by suicide? How could intervention have occurred earlier?
I can’t speak directly for the teens who have died by suicide in my neighborhood, as I did not know them or their experiences personally. However, I can say that our teen mental health care system is currently flawed at best. Two elements that make up a strong mental health care system, in my mind, are (1) accessibility/availability and (2) quality. Mental health professionals in the Bay Area are incredibly backed-up, and patients in need of care are sometimes put on six-month waiting lists. In other words, availability is scarce, and most teens are not getting the help they need when they need it… In terms of accessibility, mental health services can sometimes be out of the way, and conflict with teens’ busy school and after-school activity schedules. There’s no annual “mental health check-up” that’s required – paralleling our annual physical check-ups – so sometimes it’s just not practical or convenient to set up an appointment for mental health services.
Teens may be struggling silently for months before being able to access any services. Another issue is that confidential services are hard to come by, and those that are available are not necessarily well-known among teens. One of the barriers sometimes can actually be our parents or guardians, if we don’t feel comfortable talking about our mental health challenges with them. In this case, we absolutely need confidential, high-quality mental health services available and widely known. Lastly, in terms of quality services, cost is usually a significant barrier to attaining high-level services. Most mental health services are hard to afford, and the high cost can result in not receiving necessary help or care. Even though I’ve listed many areas for improvement here about our mental health care system, I do want to highlight that there are numerous organizations, groups, and individuals who are fiercely advocating for positive change in this field. Before moving forward to tackle more of these challenging obstacles, it’s important to recognize our progress and successes. As an example, Children’s Health Council (CHC) in Palo Alto recently launched their Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP), which is an incredibly important step forward in giving all teens the help and support that we may need. (http://www.chconline.org/iop/)
You said that your experience opened your eyes to the issues with adolescent mental health. What are some of the stressors and mental health issues that teens face?
We are currently living in a generation where stressors exist everywhere. From school, extracurriculars, work, social life, family life, time constraints, mental health challenges, and unrealistic expectations, we as teens have a lot going on in our lives. I’ve directly witnessed and experienced unhealthy behaviors – such as anxiety and all-nighters – linked to this “race” to college and successful career paths. I think part of the stress stems from the “achievement culture” we live in. Stressors and mental health issues also stem from just being teenagers, grappling with the complexities of developing our identities and figuring out who we are in this world.
In your TEDx talk, you spoke about some key facts about access to mental health services amongst minorities. What were your key findings?
Stigma is one of the most significant barriers to seeking help or accessing mental health services. Over half of all teens with mental health challenges try to cope alone because asking for help around these issues is so stigmatized. Stigma does not discriminate, meaning any or all of us can experience the shame and embarrassment linked to being labelled by a mental illness. However, levels of stigma can vary between certain demographics and social groups. For example, African Americans and Hispanic Americans used mental health services at about one-half the rate of Caucasian Americans in the past year and Asian Americans at about one-third the rate. This shows that minority groups or certain stereotyped groups face dual stigma or double stigma, which generally leads them to seek out help even less. Another example is seen with the LGBTQ community who face stigma and prejudice based on their sexual orientation or gender identity, while also grappling with the societal bias against mental health conditions.
Tell me about your mission to fight the stigma of mental illness, and how we can all do that?
Anyone can help fight the stigma of mental illness. It’s about getting vulnerable and sharing our own narratives – our challenges, difficulties, struggles, etc. – so that we realize it’s really normal and inevitable to have these experiences in our lives. As soon as one person puts themselves out there talking about their mental health challenges, it will inspire others to gradually start speaking up and sharing their own experiences too. It’s a cycle of talking about mental health and how we’re feeling, and the more we talk about it, the closer we are to erasing the stigma. Research has actually proven that stigma cannot be broken down with statistics and facts alone – such as the fact that 1 in 5 teens will experience a mental illness. This fact alone shows the prevalence of mental illness in teens and how common mental illness is, but in the end it’s just numbers. We need to proactively share our experiences so that our peers are able to connect with the reality of mental health challenges on a more personal peer-to-peer level; numbers can’t break down the stigma, but sharing stories can.
The psychology behind your mission is peer support. What does that mean to you?
To me, peer support is being there. We as teens are not trained in crisis counseling or therapy, but we all have the ability to listen. Sometimes all it really takes is a trusted ear that’s willing to listen, in order for us to voice our thoughts, or as they say, “get something off our chest.” Peer support is also about being encouraging, spreading messages of hope and recovery, and emphasizing you are not alone. Any teen can practice peer support by listening, sharing knowledge or experiences, teaching learned coping strategies, or connecting peers with resources.
Your site harnesses the positive power of peer influence, tell me how that works?
I think that the media commonly portrays teens’ influence on one another as negative, such as with drugs and alcohol. There’s a lot of talk about “peer pressure” and “problem behavior” with teens. Our site works to show the other real side of peer influence: the positive side. We as teens value our peers’ opinions and advice. We’re more likely to confide in, listen to, and relate to other teens – rather than our parents or adults – on topics such as stress management and overcoming adversity. If we’re able to harness our positive messages for each other, our stories of hope and inspiration, our fight for wellness, we’ll see a revolution in how mental health challenges are viewed. We may even be able to encourage our friends or classmates who may be hurting to talk with us or connect with resources. Basically, peer influence can be used for us to support each other, and through this, we can make it the norm to be as well as we can possibly be.
What I particularly like about your site is your motto, "Together we inspire growth." How does community inspire growth? And just how does your community enhance an adolescent’s life?
I think community inspires growth because in a community, we’re not alone, and we have the support of our peers around us, moving towards a common goal – in this case, the goal is wellness. As I mentioned before, adolescence is a time of identity development along with many other changes, and it can be difficult to move through it alone. In a community environment, we’re able to put our strengths together, come up with effective coping strategies, and enjoy the feeling of being a part of something bigger than ourselves. Communities are sources of knowledge, inspiration, support, and friendship.
What do you convey as the key components to mental health? And how do you keep mentally healthy?
I think a few of the key components to mental health include sleep, exercise, nutrition, healthy relationships, mindfulness, indulging in activities or hobbies we enjoy, and having a support system. A few ways that I personally keep mentally healthy [are] by prioritizing my sleep, setting aside “me-time,” and trying to maintain a balanced workload between school and other activities.
Lastly, what are some ways adults can better support teens?
Unconditional love is what comes to mind for me here. There absolutely will be ups and downs throughout our teen years and into adulthood as well. If we’re not so talkative some days, if we mess up a test at school, if we have an attitude… this is all part of the full “life package,” and hopefully with time we can build a stronger, more understanding relationship with each other, if it’s not there yet already. But through all the good, bad, and ugly, it means the world to us to be loved unconditionally – just knowing that it’s there is all we really need. Love and consistency.