"Don't Wait: Three Girls Who Fought for Change and Won" publishes in June.

As graduation season reaches a peak, we continue to see student protests demanding that their colleges divest from Israel. Student activists have found solidarity with each other but also faced violence from police and counter-protesters.

Engaging in activism can be deeply fulfilling, but it can also challenge your physical and mental health. I spoke with Dr. Roya Ijadi-Maghsoodi, a psychiatrist at UCLA and a researcher in child psychiatry, about the ways in which activism can affect mental health and how students can take care of themselves while being involved in activism.

This interview took place in early 2023 and is a part of “Don’t Wait: Three Girls Who Fought for Change and Won,” my young adult non-fiction book publishing June 4. The book focuses on the journeys of three girls of color as they find their activism, and includes Q&As like this one. The lessons and advice that Dr. Ijadi-Maghsoodi shared, though not specific to the current movement, remain applicable to young people protesting today.

Dr. Ijadi-Maghsoodi became an activist herself in college after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. The organization she was a part of, Time for Peace, held weekly vigils for years to advocate for nonviolence. I talked to her about mental health care, what it even means, how teenagers can get it, and how activism can inform your future.

Sonali Kohli: So what is mental health?

Roya Ijadi-Maghsoodi: Mental health is basically someone’s emotional well-being, their spiritual well-being, and their physical well-being, the way people function in society, how they can contribute to society and relationships with other people.

SK: Why does it matter that we have spiritual or emotional well-being or that we function in relation to other people or in society? Like why can’t we just be alone in our rooms?

RIM: Well, we can sometimes. But mental health is important because we do we live in a stressful world. People are constantly dealing with stressors. So mental health is really kind of this ability to cope with stress, to cope with life. People talk about having good mental health hygiene, so being able to have the capacity to deal with functioning in the world and taking care of oneself.

SK: What are the resources that young people have to care for their mental health? And when should you start thinking about it?

RIM: It’s really thinking about it on a continuum. First, the basic things are making sure your basic needs are met: Are you eating enough food? Are you getting enough sleep? Are you living in a safe place? Are you housed? There’s ways to address mental health by just working on getting enough sleep, being able to exercise, being able to be outside, being able to reach out to supportive people.

And then there’s also needing to see mental health clinicians, people who can help support

your mental health. So for kids and teens, I think one place to start is the school. A lot of

schools are thinking about mental health more

and have counselors, have social workers, have school-based health centers where kids can go and seek mental health resources. There’s also a growing movement of peers, so youth kind of

acting as peers for each other and really leading the way and talking about how important mental health is.

If you’re seeing a pediatrician or you’re seeing a primary care provider, you can ask for mental health resources there to be connected to clinicians. And then we also have hotlines. There’s the Trevor Project hotline where youth can call anytime or text. 

SK: The way that you described mental health, it seems like the things that cause inequity on a

societal basis also would cause differences in mental health. If you’re a teenager, a lot is out of your control, like if you’re getting enough food or sleep or are housed. So how do you deal with that?

RIM: Focusing on the things that are in your control, so you know, still trying to get adequate rest, still

trying to form supportive relationships, finding an adult in your life that can support you, finding the peers that you can reach out to. And then reaching out for mental health resources if you need it.

But, yeah, we don’t want to place this on an individual. We also need to make the world

healthier for teens. We need to kind of address these underlying issues. We can make things less stressful for teens. The adults can do that. The schools can do that. There are growing efforts to increase access to mental health resources for kids. We’re talking about activism too, so I think we also need to be thinking about that. Like, how do we keep increasing mental health resources that are super needed right now?

SK: Can you talk about the way that activism, organizing, and agency can play in how you feel as a young person and your mental health?

RIM: There’s lots of evidence that self-efficacy—feeling like you’re able to take care of something effectively—can help your mental health. Being in like-minded groups, being in social movements with people that are working towards greater goals together, can help your mental health. For people who have undergone stressful situations or trauma, making meaning out of situations or turning these situations into activism all can help with mental health. And it’s really great that a lot of kids are doing this. And then on the other side, it’s also thinking about when it can be too much, also being able to also still focus on your own self throughout all of this as well.

SK: How do you find that balance of helping the collective and feeling better because you’re part

of that collective, but then also caring for your own self?

RIM: This is hard. I don’t think in society we are teaching that balance to people. Really being

able to check in with how someone’s feeling— Are you getting enough rest? Are you able to

give? Are you healthy?—during your activism, during all these activities that you’re doing and then taking steps to address it. And also thinking about things more long term. So if this is going to be a long-term effort, how to keep doing this while not making yourself burn out or be exhausted in the process.

SK: When you’re experiencing something like that, whether it’s burnout or where your body is on

the line for your activism, how do you deal with that?

RIM: There’s an urgency to activism because you’re addressing life-or-death situations and you’re

taking on these really important issues that people are not addressing. I do understand the urgency, but I think being able to take a step back and thinking about the long term, so being able to rest in the moment, knowing that you can come back. 

I do think we can learn a lot from self-care. It’s a kind of a buzzword now, it’s gotten a bad rap a little bit but self-care does have radical origins. It came out of the Black Panthers, the need to work on community health because of medical apartheid. Lots of activists throughout the years have had to turn to self-care. So yoga, meditation, rest, because they knew this was a long-term effort. So, I think, for teens to kind of reclaim that and think about that as well. Because adults often are not telling kids to rest or these teens are doing these things on their own

time with all these demands placed on them. So being able to internally check in and rest and

knowing that’s okay.

SK: Can a teenager be negatively impacted by something that is happening somewhere else or that doesn’t impact them directly, like seeing videos of police brutality?

RIM: Teens can definitely be impacted by events that they’re not in proximity to, that they’re watching. There’s research actually out of 9/11 where people watching footage of what had happened

develop PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] symptoms. And I think now we’re just constantly

bombarded by social media and images and videos.

I think especially if you’re from that community, or you have a connection, it can definitely affect your mental health. That can also be really hard globally. So if you’re in a place where your institution or school isn’t realizing that something globally is impacting you, that can be even more hard, if you’re feeling more isolated. So really kind of tuning into that and limiting what you’re watching and what you’re viewing and knowing it’s okay that you’re not feeling okay about these experiences and that it’s really valid what you’re going through and feeling.

You can call or text 988 to connect to a national Suicide and Crisis Lifeline any time of day or night. To reach the Trevor Project hotline, which Roya mentioned, call 1-866-488-7386 or text START to 678-678.

Excerpted from “Don’t Wait: Three Girls Who Fought for Change and Won,” by Sonali Kohli (Beacon Press, 2024). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.

Don’t Wait publishes June 4. Pre-order your copy here and join Epicenter-NYC for a youth block party at The World’s Borough Bookshop in Jackson Heights, where Editorial Director Femi Redwood will interview me about the book!

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