“That’s just the way it is. Some things will never change.” – Bruce Hornsby

The acceptance of the status quo. The resignation that circumstances are unalterable. The belief that change is impossible. That’s the underlying message of the dismissive phrase, “That’s just the way it is.” 

However, the Young Leaders Council, sponsored by the nonprofit organization Mental Health America (MHA), is on a mission to dispel that thinking. Jackie Menjivar, MHA manager of peer and youth advocacy, oversees the annual 6-month program that recruits a cohort of 10 young adults aged 18-25 from across the country. By giving them a platform to have a voice in mental health advocacy, these leaders help to develop programs and initiatives that fill gaps in mental health support in their communities. 

The 2022-2023 Young Leaders Council’s most recent cohort released its annual report, “Challenging, Sustaining, and Evolving: An Anthology on Youth Mental Health Advocacy (and Hope).” Menjivar explains, “This year’s report is different from any past years, as it’s an anthology reimagined with first-person stories.” Six of the ten council members authored a section for the report with a personal advocacy story that reflects on the perspectives of what it’s like to bring about change as a youth mental health advocate and the challenges that come with it. 

Menjivar sat with four of the anthology’s authors on an MHA webinar, “Unspoken Truths: Being a Young Person in Advocacy Spaces,” to discuss the complexities, challenges, and victories they encounter in their work as youth activists.

Savannah Frye, MA, R-CPRS, is the regional coordinator for peer recovery specialists & family support partners for the Northern Virginia Regional Projects Office. Her lived experience of being in long-term recovery from opioid misuse fuels her advocacy work for those struggling with substance use and mental health challenges. Before her regional coordinator role, she was a peer support specialist working directly with incarcerated individuals. “As much as there are injustices, you can see where coming from lived experience and sharing your recovery story has so much power,” she said. “The more you get a taste of what our behavioral health system could look like, the more you want to create these sustainable programs.”

Mariama Bah’s lived experience with sexual abuse and trauma led her to be an advocate for mental health. “I feel that there are so many unspoken voices, especially around youth. I want to be the person to advocate for others who are not able to speak their voice,” she said. Per her bio on the MHA website, she founded the nonprofit organization Nation of Diversity to support mental health through art and music and provide outreach services to people experiencing homelessness. 

Jillian King, a psychology student at Georgia Southern University, co-founded the Students with Disabilities Advocacy Group (SDAG) to help empower disabled students. King, who is blind, was inspired to advocate due to limited access to care in rural low-income areas and accessibility on campus. “There’s a lot of power in the disabled community, a lot of power in what we can achieve through innovative thinking in an inaccessible, inequitable society,” she said. “We can create hope in spite of systems that really don’t want that to be the case.” 

Jose Cabellero is a sophomore at Columbia University majoring in cognitive science & Hispanic studies. He was born and raised in Nicaragua and immigrated to the U.S. as a teenager. His advocacy focus centers on mental health intersectionality, significantly the overlap of lived experience and research, using storytelling to enact change. “Storytelling is a way to make mental health sustainable since it invites us to envision the past we inherited, the present that we desire, and the future that we want to build and cultivate together,” he said.  

What was it like for you to be vulnerable enough to write your sections of the report? 

Mariama: “For me, while I was writing, first, I had to center myself. I had to do something I really loved because I knew that I was stepping into a vulnerable space. One thing I love to do is paint and draw and journal. I started painting, and I started letting my emotions and trauma come to me to be able to be vulnerable and show people my stories so they’re able to be relatable. After that, it was like a weight off my shoulders, and it was like, okay, this is good because I know people are going to relate to this.”

Savannah: “As soon as you said storytelling, part of the peer recovery training is literally a section called “The Art of Telling Your Story,” and the more that I’ve gone through and been in the peer support world, the more that I recognize how true that is. Create that safe space for yourself when you’re telling your story. I’ve had multiple individuals that I’ve supported that hit very close to home because they have very similar lived experiences, and as I’m sharing my story it kind of changes based on who I’m telling my story to. Some things might come up where I’m like, ‘Oh, that was a little bit more raw,’ or maybe I kind of need to work through that a little bit more or support myself a little bit more. So that’s a big part of it, is creating that safe space with the person you’re sharing with, but also for yourself as well.” 

Jill: “For me, as a leader, I’ve found myself at a crux of hesitating to even be fully authentic because once you become a leader, your struggles don’t stop. It can be very healing to do this advocacy work, to be the person that you needed when you were younger. But struggles still happen, and life still goes on. I still have a mental illness at the end of the day. People want to know what’s going on with you because that connection is how we can really get through this together.”

Jose: “I wanted to make my part of the anthology as accessible to people in the best way possible, just approaching my writing and the way I tell my story in a very compelling way, in a way that people can understand. I think creating a safe space at its core and the structure of that is shying away from the binary mentality that there is a good story and a bad story, that if you’re sad, that equates to being unable to feel happiness. Sometimes, we just need someone to listen and not give unsolicited advice. That creates a safe space as well.” 

How do you handle particularly emotionally challenging issues or when you feel disillusioned or hopeless in your advocacy work?

Mariama: “Just because I’m an advocate now doesn’t mean I have to have this facade of ‘Oh, everything is great, everything is perfect, just keep everything to myself.’ One of the things that I love that we’ve started doing is having a once-a-month meeting. What we’re doing for the community is exactly what we decided to do for ourselves, that peer support group. Let’s come together as a team and do art and really talk about what’s going on with us and how can we support each other. Once we have that, it’s easier to be out there and help those that really need our support.” 

Jill:I generally abide by the rule if I don’t know how to talk about it safely with myself, I’m not gonna share it, but I think having a close-knit group of fellow advocates who I can share what I’m capable of sharing, even if it’s not the full gist of it, just sharing ‘hey, I’m struggling right now and this is the truth of it, I need support, where can we go from here?’ When I get stuck in that gray space, I’m going to lean on that community. That’s usually what gets me through it until I can figure it out.” 

Jose: “I find hope in the interchange of ideas. There’s power that comes with ideas. Decisions are made with ideas. I think that the currency of society and the entire world is based on ideas. I think seeking an understanding of other perspectives and challenging your own ideas, your own mindset and mentality really helps in understanding yourself and to develop self-awareness.”

Savannah: “Having that close-knit community that understands your lived experiences but also finding your champions and people who aren’t going through similar things but can have empathy and relate to some of those emotions that you’re going through has been crucial for me. Also, recognizing that some of the systems that I work in are not easy: recovery programs based in a jail and the justice system, working with insurance.”

How do you build community with other advocates and remain sustainable without burning out?

Savannah: “I did direct peer support work for three years before my regional coordination position. A few individuals I was working with passed away during my time with them, and it really rocked me to my core. So, I made the intentional decision when the coordinator position popped up, I can still do what I love, but the direct peer work isn’t the thing for me right now. It’s ultimately something I would like to return to, but stepping away from it for now was the way I was going to take care of myself first.” 

Jill: “The friendships I’ve been able to make among advocates has been meeting each other where we are: ‘I see you’re doing this really great work. How are YOU doing?’ Because I know even if I’m at the height of a really great project, I could be in the pits personally.” 

“That’s just the way it is. Ah, but don’t you believe them.” – Bruce Hornsby

How can mental health in America be normalized, especially for children and youth? 

Mariama: “Being told mental health struggles are just ‘part of life’, for me, undermines the struggles that I’m going through, and that’s something I’m teaching my family, to show them that although it’s ‘part of life,’ I don’t know how to deal with these things. You’ve had life more than me. How did you deal with certain things that you have dealt with? Can you give me some advice to be relatable and not just kick my struggles aside and be like, ‘Oh, that’s just part of life’? Approaching whoever is telling you this in a way where you are more curious about how they handled things will provoke them to give you advice and help you out instead of just kicking your problems aside.” 

Jill: “I hear that a lot, too: ‘Oh, that’s just how it is.’ They’ll come into our groups, talking about what they’re struggling with, but then say, ‘Oh, but I know everyone deals with this. That’s what this is like.’ But it shouldn’t be. We can acknowledge that, yes, this is something that a lot of us have experienced, and we can also acknowledge that it’s something that sucks and it should be better, and we’re going to fight to make it better.” 

Jose: “Acknowledge that it’s much bigger than just ourselves, and it’s not a one-way solution. How do you tell an immigrant kid that emigrated from a country and is adapting here in the U.S. and feeling alienated that it’s just ‘part of life and that’s how you grow’? Again, I’m shying away from that binary view of ‘this is how it is.’ I think that phrase is more perpetuated in the intergenerational trauma that we all are trying to break, and I think there’s a lot of healing that we as a civilization need to do.”

Savannah: “You often hit a crossroads in advocacy multiple times, and a lot of it is dealing with those kinds of things that you were told growing up are things that you don’t even realize kind of pop up in your thinking and the way that you operate. A lot of being a young person in advocacy is you’re unlearning all of these things at the same time, and it’s a little overwhelming at times.”

That’s great advice for allies, allowing yourself to be challenged, and allowing yourself to be wrong, and unlearning some of those things that maybe need to be changed. How else can adult allies support the work that young advocates are doing? 

Savannah: “When I did direct peer work, one of the biggest ways I found my voice in interdisciplinary panels was being integrated into everything, going to team meetings, finding the people who were able to see my value and were able to amplify it and inform the entire system about the value that my role held.”

Jose: “Ensure that youth advocates are compensated fairly. Pay us for the work we do.” 

Jill: “Some of the best engagement my group has seen has been when adults have come in and met us where we are. Even if they don’t have an exact shared experience, showing that they’re actively listening and thinking critically about it. Within higher education, being actively listened to is something that a lot of disabled students don’t expect, and it’s lovely when we’re proven wrong.” 

Mariama: “Express that they have dealt with the situation themselves. Letting us know they’ve been there and give us advice. Growing up, I had so many adults that dehumanized my feelings, so when I’ve had adults actually understand what I’m going through and share the things that they’ve gone through, it helps me thrive more.”

View the entire webinar here: “Unspoken Truths: Being a Young Person in Advocacy Spaces.”