Youth mental health is a cause not championed enough, and today PBS SoCal, KCET and the nationwide initiative Well Beings are hosting a virtual event, free and open to everyone, entitled Lowering Barriers: Race, Income and Mental Health. It will not only discuss the challenges that young people face in taking care their mental health, but also discuss solutions for them to get the support and resources they need.

Before you access the event here, Nerdophiles had the opportunity to chat with moderator Cara Santa Maria, who’s one of the many brilliant people involved with the occasion. She is the host of the daily series SoCal Update, as well as an award-winning journalist, author and podcaster; she hosts the podcast Talk Nerdy and you may recognize her from her appearances on the NatGeo series Brain Games.

Cara spoke about the differences between youth mental health and adult mental health, some of the issues that young people face in the area of mental health, and why this event is able to address those challenges. Plus, find out how much a moderator actually does to help an event run smoothly—it’s more than you think!

Nerdophiles: This event is part of the nationwide Well Beings tour. How did you get involved with the program?

Cara Santa Maria: It really just blossomed out of my relationship with KCET and PBS. I’ve been working with KCET for many, many years now, and then when they combined with PBS, obviously that continued my relationship. Right now I’m working as the host of SoCal Update; previously I was a reporter on SoCal Connected and I’ve done Earth Focus and a handful of other projects with the network. So it seemed like a good partnership as is.

When it comes to mental health awareness and reducing mental illness stigma, now I’m working on my Ph.D. in clinical psychology, so I am a psychotherapist. I work with individuals who are struggling with mental illness. I myself also have major depressive disorder, so I see a therapist myself, I take medication and I’ve been very, very open about this for probably the past 20 years.

NP: This event is specific to youth mental health. Is there a significant difference between youth mental health and adult mental health?

CSM: There’s a massive difference. Not only do different diagnoses affect youth versus adults, but the amount of resources that are available, the stigma surrounding mental health, just the ability of young people to be able to access the support that they need. It’s completely different because young people, as we know, unfortunately, don’t have as much agency.

So many young people don’t have the means to be able to get therapy. There may be stigma within their own families about seeing a psychiatrist, for example. And they’re having to kind of bump up against cultural barriers, familial barriers, socioeconomic barriers.

As we become adults and we have a little bit more agency, it doesn’t mean those barriers magically go away. But we’re not having to navigate conflicts with our own parents, for example, about accessing mental health services. And we don’t have the same kinds of stressors as adults. We have different stressors.

But young people are dealing with a lot of social pressures for sure. We think back to what it was like when we were in middle school, high school, and the social pressures and the so social stigmas that we were having to navigate. Adolescence is not an easy time in most people’s lives, so you compound that with dealing with mental health issues, and I think it is a unique concern.

NP: You’re one of the many awesome people involved with this event. Is there anyone else you’re particularly excited to hear from?

CSM: Oh, my gosh, everybody. (laughs) LeVar Burton. Isn’t he everyone’s favorite? LaVar Burton’s the man. He’s so cool. Bill Pullman, Miley Cyrus—there’s so many really, really interesting people, and not just the celebrities, but these really important scholars in these areas who have an awful lot to contribute.

In the panel, I have the opportunity to interview Dr. Manuel Pastor, and Katherine Yeom, and also Roshawn Davis. I think that’s a really important aspect of the way that this event has been developed, is that not only do we have individuals who can draw attention to the cause, but we have individuals who have expertise in these areas. And then we also have young people themselves talking about their own individual experience. Which lends not just credibility, but it lends a relatability to this.

I don’t want this to be a bunch of stuffy old people talking about what it’s like to be young. There are people who are dealing with this right now, or people who dealt very recently with it and overcame some of these barriers. That’s also a really important aspect of the event.

NP: With most events and conventions, there’s a perception that the moderator just sort of introduces the panel. Especially when dealing with a serious, scientific issue like this, what does your job description actually entail?

CSM: There’s research and there’s preparation, and there are meetings that you do in advance to ensure that your panelists and you understand what their positions are and where they’re coming from. The day of, the moderator does a handful of things. I still think my job is the easiest job, because of course I’m just there to sort of referee. But I introduce the event, I give background, I keep time, I interview the individual panelists.

And then luckily I get to throw it over to Andre Tinoco, who’s an alumnus of PBS NewsHour‘s Student Reporting Labs Program. He’s only 21 years old. He does a second panel called “Solutions,” where he interviews a handful of really interesting folks who have important perspectives. I also throw to different clips that are informative, and then I close out the whole show at the end.

So I’m sort of the bookends of the show. I keep things moving, make sure that everybody has equal time to speak. I keep things to time. I like to think of a moderator as kind of a referee for the event.

NP: As someone with personal experience in this area, what does it mean to you to be involved in an event like this? Does working with others give you an additional perspective on your experiences?

CSM: Absolutely. I think sometimes there’s a privilege that comes with age and life experience and education. I’ve been very lucky in that even though I didn’t have the easiest childhood or the easiest adolescence, I have been able to be resilient, and I have been able to experience a lot of privileges in my life. So now as a PhD candidate, as an individual who works as a therapist, I work with cancer patients currently. And as a person who has been on medication for quite some time, who has been in therapy for decades of my life, I like to think of my mental health issues as being well managed and well controlled.

I think it’s important when I engage in these kinds of events, because it takes me back. It offers new insights and opens me up from an empathic perspective to be able to remember what it was like when I was a kiddo. To be able to remember some of those hurdles and obstacles that I myself overcame. And see the resilience on the faces of the young people that I’m interviewing. And kind of be able to know in my heart of hearts and to be able to maybe telegraph to them a little bit that they’re going to get through this, and they’re going to be okay, and they’re not alone.

NP: The hope is that this event will be step one in young people either having more of a discussion about mental health or perhaps being inspired to get help on the subject. Is there anything in particular you’d like them to take away from it?

CSM: If you walk away with anything at all, my hope would be that it’s a little bit of empathy. I think that that is really fundamental to this entire topic of mental health, mental illness, reducing stigma, well being. For individuals who may not be struggling with mental illness, or for those who might be dealing with certain specific triggers or certain specific pressures, but not others—one of the best things that we can do is to exercise and practice empathy.

I think that this panel is going to do a really good job of facilitating that exercise and that practice of empathy. It’s probably the first step that we need in an effort to be able to reduce barriers and improve services for young people who are struggling.

NP: You mentioned some of what you’re working on earlier, so where else can our audience follow you after the event is over?

CSM: I’m working pretty hard on my Ph.D. program and doing psychotherapy. But in terms of the media work that I do, I’m hosting SoCal Update, which is a daily show that’s a partnership between PBS, KCET and KPCC. I’m also still podcasting, so you can find me on my own show; it’s called Talk Nerdy with Cara Santa Maria, and that airs every Monday. I’m also the co-host of The Skeptics Guide’ to the Universe, which airs on Saturdays weekly.

Those are kind of the big things that I’ve been doing recently. And if anybody wants to follow me, I’m on all the social media sites. I share a lot of really interesting science stories every day on social media, so it’s a good place to go to get some science news, to know what’s going on in the world of science right now.

Lowering Barriers: Race, Income and Mental Health takes place Thursday, May 20 at 5:00 p.m. PST on the Well Beings website. You can also find additional mental health resources and information on other Well Beings events there.

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