teens on bridge

Mental Health Awareness Month:
Listening to the Teens

By Mary Jo Podgurski, RNC, EdD, Director, Washington Health System Teen Outreach; Founder and President, Academy for Adolescent Health, Inc.; Adjunct Professor, Washington and Jefferson College

Since my hair is now white – it returned white after chemo and I decided to embrace it –people often tilt their heads when they first meet me, and say things like, “Are you still teaching?”

Yes, I am still doing what I love. This is my 52nd year serving young people as a nurse, educator, and counselor. For five decades, I have championed programs to empower children and young people by easing their mental and physical health challenges.

Every program I’ve created, every book I’ve written, and every class I’ve taught was predicated by listening to the youth I serve. I cannot know what they need unless I hold space with them and hear them.

When the opportunity to write this blog was offered to me, I was thrilled. I immediately knew where I would go for material – directly to teens. Our Outreach hosted our 27th Youth Conference on April 27, 2023. Over 80 young people gathered in Washington Jefferson College’s Rossin Ballroom for a day of interactive facilitation, led by our trained Peer Educators, and ending with a panel of adults ranging in age from 20-something to 80-something. I was honored to represent the 70-something generation. Gathering teens to discuss mental health that day was both easy – they were interested and willing – and challenging, since they had a full day of activities. I then expanded my reach to the teens who attend our Common Ground Teen Center.

These are unedited comments from young people. I first asked them if COVID was the cause of their angst, and was told COVID and society’s reactions were factors, but their peers’ mental health issues ran deeper than the pandemic. The challenges associated with mental health are obviously real and urgent for many teens.

“Mental health is a huge problem among teens. Everyone should have help at any age, specifically, teens need support. Teens can express trauma in their young lives that causes too much stress for them to handle it. Teens should always have someone they can talk to. I think we need to hire more professional staff to talk with teens regularly, so they know it’s okay to reach out. I would encourage assemblies to raise awareness of mental health. I would have multiple safe spaces for any age with adult supervision.”

 – Bhadrasena Ramlogan, 18

“I think mental health issues among teens are a very big problem. Mental health affects many teens every single day. We need to encourage people to talk about their problems more often. Talking about mental health should not be seen as a bad thing, but a positive one.”

– Rex Bennett, 16

“Mental health is a big problem for teens. I wish there were more therapists and that everyone had a loved one to talk to.”

– Kaiden Mowery, 15

“Mental health is a massive problem among teenagers. From affecting school and physical health, it can bring chaos to a normal life. Suicide is among the highest causes of death in teens, and something needs done about it. I would try to increase public awareness; many people find it weird or uncomfortable to talk about mental health. It is a subject not normally discussed outside a therapist’s office.”

– Logan Hollowood, 15

“Mental health is an issue that is large and is too stigmatized. I would offer free therapy and education to decrease the stigma.”

– Brycen McAdoo, 16

“Mental health is like a spider’s web. It is an extreme problem for some teens. I would increase education to raise awareness.”

– Isabella King, 13

“Mental health is a huge problem for teens. My school has lost two students to suicide this year and so little has been done. Every single person I know has mental health struggles. It is a crisis. I recommend we talk about it. Talk about it in the present tense, as something you ARE going through, not just what you’ve been through.”

– Rowan Curry, 18

“As an African American female who deals with mental health issues, I can relate to some of these issues. The topic I relate to most is the lack of black mental health care workers and influencers. Not being able to speak to someone who relates to me is very hard and frustrating. As much as I would like to express how I am feeling and what I am thinking, I know that the person I am speaking with can only go by what I say and not how I feel. Personally, I feel like therapy could be a lot more beneficial to me if it was an African American, preferably a woman. For this reason, I hope to one day become a mental health influencer for the black community, so I can save at least one person from having to deal with the same issue that others, and myself, must deal with.”

– Lynzi Smith, 16

This final comment was given to me with the caveat that it be anonymous. Although I normally seek identification for my sources, in this case, I understood.

“I can only speak for myself. I think mental health is a problem for teens because it’s a problem for adults. It’s very scary in the country right now. I’m gender non-binary. I’m not trans and I haven’t told anyone how I feel about myself, so people don’t really know, but I still am scared. I listen to what’s being said. The anti-trans laws in the nation are terrifying. The hate I see is horrible too. I have friends who are depressed. I’m not depressed but I am anxious – more than I was even a year ago. I thought about discretely getting a therapist, but I was afraid to say anything about gender, so I just dropped it. How can it be legal to hate? How can people my age seek help when it is so obvious some adults will judge us before they even get to know us?”

– Anonymous, 17

As an adult who cares deeply about young people, I find these words chilling. They are a call to action. We must ease these teens’ anxiety. It is our responsibility and our duty to serve them.

If you’re struggling with your mental health, consider talking to a trusted loved one, your primary care physician, a faith leader, or call the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.