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My Turn

by Dmae Lo Roberts

The goal of The –Ism Youth Files is to create more awareness about youth mental health and to break the silence that still exists in communities of color. (Image by Danica Leung)

From The Asian Reporter, V32, #9 (September 5, 2022), pages 6 & 12.

The –Ism Youth Files

The COVID-19 pandemic will forever leave an indelible milestone on young people in the U.S. and around the world. Just as previous generations experienced trauma from war and economic depression, the last few years have created lasting mental health challenges for youth. Because of this, I’ve been focused on the topic and started a project that culminated in a new e-book and podcast.

From 40 submissions, 20 writers were selected, not only from Oregon and Washington, but from Indiana, Minnesota, Massachusetts, and Connecticut, as well as a young person from Kolkata, India. Each writer received an honorarium payment. During the last year, The –Ism Youth Files, a project of MediaRites, turned into a mentorship program as we worked with writers to polish their work. For the podcast, I interviewed essayists about the motivations behind their writings and the effects of the pandemic in their lives. The goal of The –Ism Youth Files is to create more awareness about youth mental health and to break the silence that still exists in communities of color.

One of the writers, Danica Leung, created a graphic novel called Good Kid, which details her mental health journey. An 18-year-old entering college as a freshman this year, Leung said the pandemic took a bad toll on her mental health because of the isolation and loss of social contact, which gave her "a sense of helplessness and despair." She sought therapy which she continues to this day.

"I think therapy is about validating someone’s fears and concerns, giving them a space to explore what maybe otherwise [feels] taboo to talk about, and finding ways that are comfortable and safe for them to be able to vent ..." said Leung. "And I think especially for Chinese Americans, who come from a collectivist culture in which it’s very taboo sometimes to speak out … we’re kind of faced with the model minority myth, where we have to be high performing in order to belong … Therapy was super helpful to be able to really put a label on what I was feeling."

Several other Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) youth writers of various ages experienced mental health challenges during the pandemic. Eleven-year-old Mila Kashiwabara in Portland wrote, "I actually go through anxiety myself. Sometimes I have a fear of running out of oxygen …"

A lengthier description in British-influenced English came from Adrija Jana, who is 18 years old and living in Kolkata, India, a country where more than half a million people have died from COVID-19.

"Throughout this period, I kept feeling like I would fall into depression," Jana wrote. "I felt stressed, yes, tense, and extremely anxious too, but not for a single moment did I feel I wanted to do something drastic. Later I realised it was because I did not have the time or the mindset for it. I knew that I was bottling up a lot in my heart, and I needed to cry. Even if I found two minutes to myself, tears would not flow. I was emotionally dead working on autopilot. I knew if something happened to me, I would be taking down the entire family of ten members. So I persevered. I hardened my core."

Jenell Theobald, a 15-year-old in Beaverton, Oregon, started her own nonprofit organization called Let’s Peer Up, which is dedicated to supporting people with disabilities. As a teen on the autism spectrum, she also experienced depression. Sadly, some teens do not survive.

"The second year of the pandemic, of social isolation, of being stuck at home, the tick-tock of the clock is the only sound at the moment," Theobald wrote. "Something is a bit off, though. My coaches don’t seem as energetic and enthusiastic today. And, there are fewer people than usual. One person is missing. Because this is quite an expensive self-paid small-group class, no one ever misses class, so today’s smaller class size is noticeable. But it’s probably nothing. He probably just went on vacation. But he didn’t show up to the next class either, or the class after that. Then I found out he committed suicide. My heart twisted, and a wave of sorrow washed over me."

In a poem, 15-year-old Cara Chen in Lake Oswego, Oregon, wrote of her unwelcome solitude:

i’m home, i say, to a house too empty for my soul. a house that,

if given the chance, would swallow me up — teeth and hair and all

until there was nothing of me left for myself.

The –Ism Youth Files e-book and podcast aim to chronicle an unprecedented time for youth about life during and after the coronavirus pandemic, perhaps encouraging more awareness for a taboo subject in the AAPI community. All the youth who participated affirmed that they turned to writing as a form of comfort and healing. Portlander Kaitlyn O’Neill, age 15, explored her stress about going back to school and used writing to discover a more optimistic window to the future:

Now, as we find ourselves discovering this new "normal"

Filled with those familiar faces, crowded spaces, hugs, and handshakes

We can’t help but appreciate the world a little more,

The transformation of our lives, but this time for the better

Almost as the world blooms from the remains of isolated dust

Blooms from strides as a community

Blooms from our strength

Blooms from what we’ve lost

Blooms from our hope

Blooms into the world we are rediscovering, one step at a time

And I will never take it for granted again.

To learn more about The –Ism Youth Files, visit <> or <>.

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