My Interview with Nadia Ghaffari: Meet the Amazing 18-Year-Old Founder of TeenzTalk
Nadia Ghaffari, 18, from Los Altos California, is the founder of TeenzTalk: A non-profit dedicated to supporting and empowering youth by harnessing peer-to-peer connections aims to “fight the stigma around mental health through open conversation and education.”
Her vision is to create: “A world where teens join together, prioritize wellness, and tackle new challenges to better society, while embracing the contagion of happiness and compassion.”
Questions for Nadia
Liv: You founded TeenzTalk in March 2016 in response to both the suicide clusters in your neighborhood, and having helped a close friend through a suicidal experience. You said that your experience opened your eyes to the issues with adolescent mental health. What are some of the stressors and mental health issues that teens face?
Nadia: The stressors and mental health issues that youth face vary from one individual to another; however, our experiences are unified in the adversity we face and the process of healing. Despite a variety of stressors, almost all of us have experienced sadness or anxiety or stress, and while these characteristics alone may not be cause for “mental illness,” they allow us to relate to one another’s experiences with adversity.
We are currently living in a generation where stressors exist everywhere. From school, extra-curriculars, work, social life, family life, time constraints, mental health challenges, and unrealistic expectations, we as teens have a lot going on in our lives.
I’ve directly witnessed and experienced unhealthy behaviors – such as anxiety and all-nighters – linked to this “race” to college and future career paths. I think part of the stress stems from the “achievement culture” we live in. Stressors and mental health issues also stem from just being teenagers, grappling with the complexities of our developing identities, navigating our social lives and relationships, and figuring out who we are in this world.
Nadia: As teenagers, we are strongly influenced by our peers. The term “peer influence” or “peer pressure” has commonly been used to refer to the negative influences that teens have on one another. Yet peer influence can also be positive and a major contributor to adolescent growth and success.
Teens are more likely to listen to, confide in, and relate to other teens – instead of being counseled by their parents or advisers on topics including stress-management and overcoming adversity. To me, peer support is being there. We as teens are not trained in crisis counseling or therapy – but we all have the ability to listen. Sometimes all it really takes is a trusted teen that’s willing to listen, in order for us to voice our thoughts, or as they say, “get something off our chest.” Peer support is also about being encouraging, spreading messages of hope and recovery, and emphasizing that no one is alone. Any teen can practice peer support by listening, sharing knowledge or experiences, teaching learned coping strategies, or connecting peers with resources.
Liv: In your TEDx talk, you spoke about access to mental health services and the stigma that youth with mental illness face. Tell me about the barriers to mental health services for teens?
Nadia: Unfortunately, barriers to youth mental health services are abundant and far-reaching. A few of the most significant barriers in my mind are barriers to accessible, available, and affordable services. Mental health can be very expensive and not always covered by medical insurance which directly excludes people who cannot afford paying for the services they need.
Furthermore, many services such as therapy or clinical visits have 6+ months of waiting time before an appointment even becomes available. The individual who is struggling and in need of services will likely be in a worse condition if they have to wait months before getting any treatment. And finally, navigating the mental health support system and understanding the services that exist can be confusing and complicated for youth and families. Youth are left feeling isolated and lost in the system, not knowing where to go or who can help them.
Stigma is another significant barrier to mental health services for youth – even when youth know where to go for services. For example, a counselor’s office at school, a teen may never go in to seek out these resources for fear of being judged by their peers as having something “wrong” with them. The media also contributes to stigma with sensationalized portrayals of mental illness in movies and journalism reports, not accurately representing the truths behind mental illness. Stigma can be broken and erased if communities are educated on the reality that mental illnesses are not character flaws and are absolutely deserving of validation, treatment, and support.
Liv: 2017 saw the successful delivery of your first Teen Wellness Conference. Tell me what the conference was about and what were some of the key takeaways from participants?
Nadia: TeenzTalk’s 2017 Teen Wellness Conference (TWC) was incredibly well-received and well-attended, which has already led to planning for our second-annual TWC in 2018. The 2017 conference brought together 220 youth from 88 schools to connect around their mental health experiences and stories, as well as develop tools and explore resources for wellness in a safe space. One of the most significant pieces of feedback that we received from many conference attendees was that the conference gave them a voice and empowered them to speak up without fear; many were inspired to take positive action in their own schools and communities. Attendees also noted that they appreciated being able to open up in the small-group youth-focused breakout sessions and finding other youth similar to them, with similar experiences.
The breakout session topics of the 2017 TWC were developed by youth, for youth. Therefore, we received positive feedback on the impact and relevance of topics presented. For example, one topic focused on breaking down media portrayals of mental illness. It was incredible to see young people uniting at the conference, starting conversations, and beginning to take action.
Liv: For those not able to attend your conference, or those who are just thinking about mental wellness, what are the crucial components to keeping mentally well?
Nadia: Those who may need messages of support or information on mental wellness the most are typically not going to seek out help on their own.
For this reason, one of our main concluding messages at the conference was encouraging all attendees to go out into their communities and spread positive messages of hope and healing, from what they had learned at the conference.
Various components are crucial for mental wellness, and some elements may work better or worse for different people.
I think a few of the important components for individuals to be mentally well include adequate sleep, time for self-care and reflection, healthy relationships, outlets for self-expression, media literacy around mental health, and open lines of communication with trusted adults or mentors.
Liv: Lastly, how can we better support teens in our communities?
Nadia: Invite and empower youth to share their opinions on mental health. Listen to their stories, their voices, and their ideas. When youth are given the chance to honestly speak out for themselves and their needs, communities can come together and best support them.
Reach out and connect with TeenzTalk by visiting any of the following links:
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/teenztalk.org/
- Twitter: https://twitter.com/TeenzTalk_
- Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/teenztalk/
- Website: http://www.teenztalk.org/
Images Courtesy of TeenzTalk
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