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My Turn

by Dmae Lo Roberts

Pictured is artwork from Sorting Through Shadows: Youth Speak Out On Mental Health, a book and CD published nearly 20 years ago. (Image courtesy of MediaRites)

From The Asian Reporter, V31, #9 (September 6, 2021), page 6.

The ISM Youth Files

I remember the anxiety and excitement of returning to school. On the one hand, there was joy because I loved learning, reading ó even taking tests. Yet there was always an anxiousness about not having the right kind of clothes or being judged by my appearance. I was never popular and considered myself an arts nerd. My friends were a handful of people I hung out with during theater or choir rehearsals; we garnered a certain respect at our school.

For my brother, it was the exact opposite. He was a slow learner and didnít do well with reading and writing. As a child and throughout high school, he was tormented by racist schoolmates. Back then, they called it bullying and the general response, even from my father, was that he should just "toughen" up. He was so miserable he withdrew into his own private world ó one sadly that he has never really escaped. If we as children had been offered access to mental health services, my brother could have benefitted and likely would have been diagnosed with a learning disability as well as depression and anxiety.

Yet it is doubtful my parents, especially my mom, would have accepted mental health support. As a Taiwanese immigrant, she regularly referred to psychiatrists and psychologists as "cuckoo doctors." Accessing mental health help back then meant you were crazy. Unfortunately, I donít know that itís much different now.

My brother would have loved the option of online learning rather than face bullies at school. I wouldnít have minded going to school virtually, either ó if the internet had been accessible then. Though I did well in my classes, I usually felt queasiness about entering the social world again in the fall after being at home or working a part-time job all summer.

This school year, youth are dealing with the uncertainty of pandemic life amidst in-person education. Introverts like my brother will probably opt to continue online schooling and kids who really miss socializing likely are eager to return.

Youth who were active socially prior to the coronavirus pandemic have also had a difficult time dealing with the lack of in-person interaction. A Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) report released on May 26, 2021 about youth mental health during the pandemic found that more than 20% of parents with youth between 5 and 12 years old said their children "experienced overall worsened mental or emotional health." For children and youth whose home lives were not so great before the pandemic began, going to school provided needed structure and stability which was removed during remote learning.

Iíve heard from friends how much their kids struggled the past year-and-a-half. I know of one child who did not survive the isolation and itís heartbreaking.

Writing and the performing arts helped me during my teen and college years. It gave me a creative outlet and a community. As the leader of MediaRites, a nonprofit multicultural organization, Iíve created projects that respond to current times and needs both locally and nationally. The ISM Youth Files is one such project that is currently in progress.

In 2018, I began work on The ĖIsm Project, which was a play with monologues about the intersections of race, gender, orientation, and national origin. When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the Oregon tour we had planned, we turned the stage monologues into films that are now being selected nationally and internationally for film festivals.

MediaRites is now responding to the isolation and mental health stress of BIPOC youth between 14 and 21 years old as well as young people in disability communities. The idea of The ISM Youth Files is based on a book and CD project that MediaRites published nearly 20 years ago called Sorting Through Shadows: Youth Speak Out On Mental Health, in which the organization and its board members collected essays by young people from around the country to tell their personal stories.

With the project, we plan to collect new monologues, essays, poetry, and graphic novel short stories. The youth will be paid for their work and the written pieces will be published in an e-book available for free to anyone. The stories will also be recorded for a four-part podcast with national distribution.

Iím excited about this project and to be working with youth as they speak about their mental health challenges and experiences. Weíre working with mental health professionals who specialize in the trauma and resilience of BIPOC youth. Hopefully we are able to raise awareness for the still-taboo subject through creative expression and dialogue.

If you know BIPOC youth or youth with a disability who enjoy writing, drawing, or performing, please view the details and guidelines at <>. Submissions will be accepted through November 1, 2021. We would love to hear from you!

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