Two students — high school and college — were recently recognized for their work to increase mental health awareness, educate peers and overall advocacy for improvements.
Crystal Widado and Joseph Sexton were recipients of the 2022 Student Voice of Mental Health Award from The Jed Foundation, an organization that supports young people in developing important life skills and encouraging people to engage in open conversations about mental health.
Rising high school senior Widado, who attends Glendora High School in Southern California, works as the Writing Director at Each Mind and as the Social Media Facilitator at Mind Out Loud. She explores and encourages the examination of how systems of oppression such as systemic racism and hateful policies are affecting the mental health of youth.
Vanderbilt University student Joseph Sexton uses research and community organizing to reconsider the response to mental health in the status quo. He aims to consider the structural and political systems that allow for mental illness to occur, to begin with. As a leader in the Vanderbilt Mental Health Reform Group, he ran the Vanderbilt Critical Psychiatry Conference, which shared information with clinicians.
The following interviews have been edited for clarity and length.
Content warning: This interview contains mention of suicide.
Nina Thompson: There are so many ways to have a voice on mental health issues. What interests you about being a student researcher on mental health?
Joseph Sexton: I guess I had always been interested in psychology and mental illness, even since I was a kid. So I’ve always had this standing interest. But it was really in 10th grade when I lost a good friend — an important mentor to me, the only mentor I had in high school that also had Tourette Syndrome, Logan — to suicide. I realized I needed mental health to be centered at the work that I was doing.
I found it to be a really good way to find my own self-healing as a suicide loss survivor. And then furthermore, it was a way for me to integrate mental health advocacy into the work that I was already passionate about.
NT: Have you found anything in your research that has surprised you?
JS: I’ve done a lot of different things and I would say one prominent project I did that really relates to my advocacy work was handling CDC mortality data. I’ve been working on it now for a couple of years, and it’s more of an independent project that I started when COVID-19 hit. For example, in the United States, generally, the older you get, the more at risk you are to die by suicide.
So one thing that was interesting to me is that you can find differences in who’s more at risk based on demographics such as age, marital status … and how these things all interact so much. So that research was really telling to me because now we’re moving forward into an age where a lot of statistics are actually embodying racism by not accounting for the variability and interactions of all these different demographics. And it’s still an ongoing thing to understand demographic variability.
NT: Many students feel that school negatively impacts their mental health because of the stress of homework, classwork and extracurriculars. How do you try to maintain a healthy balance between schoolwork and health?
JS: Believe it or not, amongst a lot of mental health activists and leaders, we are not very good at this. I mentioned that I’m a triple major and that sort of just happened. The goal should NOT be to get a triple major, the goal should be maintaining your well-being. And that’s something that I haven’t always done the best. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to mature and improve my time management skills. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how these things actually just enhanced my quality of life.
For more information about suicide prevention, visit Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
NT: How can people without the first-hand experience of many forms of oppression educate themselves to support an intersectional approach to mental health advocacy?
Crystal Widado: I’d say read. Especially in the age that we’re living in, there are so many resources online. There are so many amazing queer creators on [social media], that tweet amazing links to articles that they read or they’ve got published. Or TikTokers who create video essays on how colonialism and imperialism have affected us today.
NT: What influenced your choice to use journalism and writing to advocate for change?
CW: When I joined journalism in my high school during my sophomore year, that’s when I realized I could figure out how to put a lot of complex experiences and emotions that I’ve personally gone through and experiences that other people have personally gone through into writing that can generate empathy from other people.
I love writing and interviewing people who’ve gone through really difficult hardships. And those people will convey really powerful life lessons that I love to share in my writing.
NT: Many students feel that school negatively impacts their mental health because of the stress of homework, classwork, and extracurriculars. How do you try to maintain a healthy balance between schoolwork and health?
CW: Last year, I was getting like three or four hours of sleep and I wasn’t exercising, which makes me really sad because I really like working out. And I was just — I was not driving the car in my life. Someone took the keys and then kidnaped me and put me in the trunk for like that part of junior year.
This year I started beating myself up a lot for not taking care of myself. And I would — I would cry being like, “Why am I such a walking contradiction of what I advocate for?” And I finally got the chance to call my best friend on the phone. She told me taking care of myself is forgiving myself for not taking care of myself sometimes. I’m really glad she told me that because it made me realize, “You’re right. Let’s keep going.”