National Suicide Prevention Month: An Interview with Jessica Orenstein

I had the recent honor of interviewing Jessica Orenstein, the Senior Manager of High School Programming at The JED Foundation

September is National Suicide Prevention Month. Suicidal thoughts can affect all people, regardless of age, gender, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. Worldwide, nearly 800,000 people die by suicide every year, roughly one person every 40 seconds. Sadly, suicide is often the outcome of untreated mental health conditions. Far too often, the overwhelming stigmatization of mental health has prevented too many from coming forward about their struggles.

Recently, I had the privilege of interviewing Jessica Orenstein, the Senior Manager of High School Programming at the JED Foundation. She, along with her team at the JED Foundation, work tirelessly to increase mental health resources to teenagers and young adults across the nation, eradicate the taboo surrounding mental illness through meaningful conversations, and uphold the foundation’s mission. The interview can be found below: 

1. What is The JED Foundation?

The JED Foundation is a non-profit organization that seeks to protect the emotional health of our nation’s teens and prevent suicide amongst young adults. At JED, we provide families and educators (at a high school and college level) with resources and tools to help support their students' mental health. We also offer direct consulting to organizations and schools depending on their need. We accomplish this through internal collaborations across our team and through external partnerships with high schools, school districts, colleges, universities, or organizations and companies. Depending on what we’re trying to achieve or who we’re working with, we look to find the best model that would be the most well received - if I’m going to work with your organization, I’m not going to come in with the same mindset that I would if I were going into a different organization. I’d have to meet with you and figure out what is best based off of what you say you need. So these are the ways that we work to share and scale our mental health programming.

2. As the Senior Manager of High School Programming, what is your role at The JED Foundation?

I work really closely with an excellent team that is so supportive and so great. Some of my high-level responsibilities include partnership development, resource development and dissemination, and strategy and program development - a lot of development! I use this strategic approach to see how our current resources and tools will best fit within any given system. So it takes a lot of thinking through our work and the work that another organization is doing, so that we can work with them in the best way possible and hopefully create sustainable change. I also co-manage the Summer Internship Program, which is probably one of my favorite things to do. Managing this program gives me direct contact with teens, young adults, and allows me to learn more about their current experiences. I’m not a teenager, so I don't know about the concerns that teens today may have. This is one of the best ways that I can get in, maintain this direct contact with students, learn more about their experiences, and then apply them to my work. Ultimately, our work isn't useful if we're not learning from the population we're trying to work with and for.

3. What has the JED Foundation’s impact been so far? What does the JED Foundation hope to achieve in the future?

Our impact can be measured in many different ways. The JED Foundation has reached over 3 million college students through our JED campus program and through our high school programs, we’ve reached well over 1.7 million high school students across the country. In one of our recently relaunched national campaigns, Seize the Awkward, we’ve been helping students notice signs of distress in their friends and teaching them how to literally ‘seize the awkward’ and start a conversation when they know that their friend is struggling. Seize the Awkward was created in partnership with the Ad Council in 2018, and has since received over 20 million views (and counting) online. Ultimately, what we really hope to do is quite literally what our mission states: we want to prevent suicide amongst our nation's teens and young adults. We hope that by increasing the level of access to mental health resources and tools and increasing help-seeking behaviors, we ultimately eliminate suicide - not only within teens and young adults, but for everyone.

4. The JED Foundation's mission is to protect mental health and prevent suicide, especially amongst teens and young adults. In your experience, compared to past generations, has there been a rise in mental health issues present in today's young people? And if so, what do you think is the reason for this increase?

I definitely do think that there has been a rise in mental health challenges compared to past generations. I think one of the mental health concerns that I see today as very prevalent is high rates of anxiety. There are so many different factors that are responsible for increasing levels of anxiety within teens and young adults, social media being one of them. It's a level of inundation with so much information you have on social media: you have access to what's going on in the world of politics, what's going on in the world of celebrities, what's going on with almost anything you want to get your hands on. It's a lot to take in on top of your natural development. It can also be really hard to sit down and separate these to think consciously through them - not only Generation Z, but for any generation. I also think that there's this interesting pressure to be perfect amongst his generation. We see it in schools. I see this pressure to constantly go for something better when one has already achieved the best. I see an attachment of a student's purpose to the school that they get into and their career. I see them not giving themselves the grace that they need, and they deserve. It's really disheartening to see that, and I think those are contributing factors to the high levels of anxiety that I see every day with students.

5. According to the Mental Health Foundation, mental health issues affect every 1 in 10 children (aged 5 to 16 years), yet 70% of young people who experience a mental health problem do not receive appropriate treatment. Why do you think this is?

As a Black identifying woman, I could go to a school, perhaps back where I was raised in southern Illinois. At this school, I could have access to mental health resources. It's just whether or not I feel that the clinicians that I have access to, are going to be clinicians that really understand my identity and my intersectionality. Am I going to be overwhelmed with explaining all of my current struggles to them in a way that they can understand me and help me navigate my emotions and feelings? Or am I just going to say, I don’t even feel like it because it's so exhausting to teach someone what it's like to be a Black woman. I would just rather not do it. This is an example of the experiences that so many people face. They may not have access to clinicians that look like them and have the same lived experience. Some students, some teens, some young adults don't have access to mental health resources at all. All of this is contributing to the amount of people who are not receiving treatment. But then you also have traditional systems in some familial groups where they may not go to a clinician to get help, they may go to other trusted sources, such as their faith community, church, a priest or a rabbi, or whoever it is to get the help they need. It really depends. But there's a lot of different factors, I think, that are impacting why students are not getting the appropriate treatment.

6. How has mental health (especially among young people) been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?

I think COVID-19 has impacted the mental health of teens and young adults in ways that are so disheartening. I think one of the ways it stands out in my mind is that it's increased a level of hopelessness and helplessness. I think that's because a lot of younger people - in the short time that they've been on this earth - aren’t able to look ahead at the light that comes after being in such a dark place. By saying this, I am definitely not discrediting or disregarding any of their experiences because I know that when I was their age, I had gone through so many things. So that's not to say that a young adult or teen can't go through difficult times. But I do think a lot of it is because it can be really hard to conceptualize what is to happen after this and that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, especially when you are so young and have lived for such a short time. But also, there is just a complete lack of socialization, when as human beings, we're so used to socializing, and not through a computer screen. It's just not our normal. We are programmed to be out in public, walking outside without the protection of a mask. That's a huge part of socialization, but you feel like that’s taken away because of the pandemic. So I think those are some of the factors that have impacted mental health of young people because of the pandemic right now.

7. Recently, there has been a surge in conversations surrounding police brutality, generational trauma, and racial justice injustice as a whole. In both your personal and professional experience, why do you think it's so important that we prioritize the mental health of the BIPOC community at a time like this?

I personally think that it's important that we prioritize the mental health of the BIPOC community because it hasn’t traditionally been prioritized. We have communities across the entire country that have been made to feel invisible, whether that be because of where they lived, how often they were policed, or how often their stories were ignored and invalidated. Obviously, this has taken a toll on people within this community. When George Floyd was murdered, everybody who watched that tragic and terrible video was forced to see, hear, and pay attention to some of the stories that the BIPOC community has been trying to tell. If we are going to be a nation that helps our citizens heal, then we have to pay attention to every citizen, no matter their origin, race, and ethnicity. We have to pay attention to their stories and we have to offer appropriate resources, so that we can become better people as a whole. 

8. As teenagers, how can we actively fight the stigma surrounding mental health?

I think that teenagers could continue doing what they’ve always done throughout the history of this country. If people were to take the time and carefully look back at national movements, it's always going to be teens and young adults that have started these movements because they want accurate depictions of their experiences. They want change for not only themselves, not only for the generations that come after them, but for everyone that's led the way. So I think that continuing to lead movements, continuing to have open and honest conversations, and engaging in storytelling are ways that you can fight stigma around mental health. Educating people that just like all of us have physical health, we all have mental health. It's a matter of whether or not we're struggling with those things. I may have a stomachache, okay, guess what I'm struggling with my physical health today. I may have had a bad interaction with a family member or friend. Now, my mental health is a little off and I'm struggling with that. But I think it's really important that teens continue to lead these efforts, lead these movements, share their stories, and continuously educate everyone, because they will always be the ones spearheading any social change. 

9. September is National Suicide Prevention Month. How can we sustain dialogue about mental health and suicide awareness throughout the year?

I'm going to use a personal example. I'm a Black identifying woman. Black history spans way past Black History Month in February. I’m always talking about how to cultivate diverse and inclusive environments and increase conversations about the BIPOC community’s diverse experiences. I think that we need to have a passion and purpose for fighting this fight, fighting to continue the dialogue around suicide prevention and mental health awareness throughout the year. You're always going to talk about it. So yes, this is the month to do so. But it should always be a reoccurring conversation. Ask yourself, “Is this my passion? Is this my purpose?”. And if so, then I'm going to continue this conversation regardless of the month, time of the year, or time of day.

10. How can we best support friends and family who may suffer from poor mental health?

There’s really no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution here. It's important to let your friend or family member know that you're there for them. First, try to start a conversation. Don't force it, though. Let them know that you're there if they want to talk. And if they don't want to talk at this moment, you're going to be there later down the road if they do. You may check-in in the next few days to see how they’re doing or if they want to talk then. Depending on who your friend is, they may not take well to you asking “Are you okay?”. Maybe your friend is someone who would love to see a funny Tik Tok video sent to their inbox or a funny Instagram post sent to their DMs - something that helps them connect with someone else and let them know that someone's there for them. I also think that if your friend or family member is experiencing poor mental health, it’s really important to connect them with resources. Depending on the severity of their mental health, consider reaching out to a trusted adult within their circle and make sure that they’re going to receive the immediate help that they need. Like I said before, there isn’t a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. You know your friend or your family better than anyone else, so you know the best way to help them. 

11. What advice would you give to young people who are struggling with their mental health?

I would say that, first, it's okay to not be okay. I think we've been taught so much that it's not okay to feel certain feelings and to have certain emotions, which is completely wrong. It’s completely okay that you may be struggling with your mental health. You are not alone in this struggle - it’s highly likely that someone close to you is also struggling or has struggled with their mental health in the past. You will get through this time and you are worth living for. 

I would also say that as hard it might be, try your best to not compare yourself to others. As cliche as it sounds, you are so unique and so special in your own way. Personally, I’m the most weird and awkward person ever and I absolutely love it. It took me a really long time to love myself in my entirety because I was always told that being awkward and weird wasn’t good. Accept and love yourself for exactly who you are and know that you are absolutely amazing. That’s the best advice that I could give.

If you or someone you know is in an emergency, please call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or text "START" to 741-741

Please find a self care resource below

Courtesy of Redefy

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