For children suffering from mental health problems, having to constantly battle the stigma attached to such diseases can be an overwhelming fight. Enter Youth in Mind, a non-profit organization focused on youth advocating for new and better legislation concerning how people treat those who have been diagnosed.
However, even that previous paragraph is problematic. Terms such as “issues,” “illness,” “diagnosis,” and “suffer” all refer to something wrong with the brain; how we process, think, evaluate, respond; how we experience daily life.
Haydee Cuza started in advocacy work when she was a 16-year-old foster child, and was introduced to an organization called Foster Youth Connection (FYC). She would later help transform that into California Youth Connection (CYC). She is also now a consultant for Youth in Mind.
“On developing the organization [FYC], we were part of the bylaws and all the kind of technical stuff at the ages of 16, 17, which was really exciting. And, I think that just propelled me into a life of advocacy. My name is after a Cuban revolutionary and so I think, it’s just in my blood.”
Youth in Mind has partnered up with another campaign, Stomp Out Stigma. The campaign’s mission is to stomp out stigma from local, community perspectives, and give safe space for people to share their voices via photos, videos and community dialogues. This allows the youth to seize the power away from the diagnosis, and back to what they decide to show the world. It allows them to control the dialogue concerning themselves.
The goal of both of these campaigns is to effectively advocate for change when it comes to youth and mental health issues. And problems arise when the policy makers are not always willing to truly listen to someone who has been diagnosed with an “illness.”
Cuza discusses her experiences watching youth trying to promote change:
“I often sit in policy meetings and I know the youth voice is wanted, but is not necessarily honored in a way that I feel is very important for the work that we are doing. Because sometimes it’s hard to hear, sometimes it’s raw, sometimes it comes in the form of somebody yelling at the group because they are so frustrated by what’s being said, or coming in quote end quote being dressed properly, or experiencing the side effects of their medication, and those things are uncomfortable for people.”
Cuza believes the best advocacy comes from simple dialogue, and that most of the people involved in these processes are as just as lost as the general population.
“I think when young people speak directly from their heart, but not where they spill their heart out on the table. When they speak from their heart about solutions that either would have worked for them or could have worked for them or did work for them. I think also having an audience that’s ready to hear the voice of the people who have been most impacted by the system, it’s important to do the baby steps of prepping people on the issue. I think when the most work gets done is when the folks are ready to go into action and they just need some guidance and that guidance comes directly from people who have been impacted by the system.”
Unfortunately, children affected by stigma is not just limited by the ignorance of policy makers, but ignorance from the rest of us as a whole. Anyone they may come into contact with can transform from a simple conversation about the weather to a re-traumatic experience.
“Young people transition into adulthood and may not have the same medical access or resources available to them, and they still have the same emotional issues that they’re dealing with because they haven’t been able to heal from those traumas. I think that wellness is a big issue, really owning that it’s okay to take care of yourself, and that loving yourself is something that doesn’t always come natural; that its something that takes time and just being gentle with oneself through the process.”
Cuza believes the foster care system is based mostly on the belief that children need to be raised by someone to be independent adults. However, for foster youths with mental health challenges, it’s more complex:
“We have this kind of mantra that you have to be independent, but… you have to depend on the boss who is going to hire you for the job that you’re going to pay your rent for, and you have to learn how to interact with them in order to survive.”
Teddy Lederer is a journalist intern for Fostering Media Connections.