Student Voice of Mental Health Award Winner Crystal Widado Is Using Their Passion for Journalism and Debate to Ignite Vital Conversations about Mental Health

Crystal Widado (they/them) is one of two winners of this year’s Student Voice of Mental Health Award. Now in its 15th year, this award recognizes students for their outstanding work to raise awareness for mental health issues, reduce prejudice around mental illness, and encourage help-seeking among their peers. Winners of the award receive a $3,000 scholarship and will join The Jed Foundation (JED) at our annual gala on June 7, 2022. Crystal is a rising senior at Glendora High School in Los Angeles.

As a queer person and a first-generation American of Asian descent, Crystal is passionate about advocating for mental health in their community. They are the Social Media Facilitator of Mind Out Loud, a California Department of Education-sponsored mental health student representative group that advocates for increased mental health awareness in teens. Crystal is also the Writing Director of Each Mind, a youth-led mental health nonprofit that creates digital magazines and blog posts about teen mental health. Crystal is the captain of their school’s debate team and they have received numerous awards.

We talked with Crystal to learn more about their advocacy work in mental health.

Q: Huge congrats to you for being selected as one of our Student Voice of Mental Health Award winners! What inspired your mental health advocacy?

A: Mental health advocacy first began as a personal mission to ensure that other people didn’t have to experience the hardships that I had gone through in middle school. After being outed (without my consent) as queer, and also living through some family challenges, I called a hotline due to suicidal ideation. From there, I was referred to JED and was really motivated to find other opportunities to get involved with mental health work. Back then, I just wanted to help people on an individual level and relied on volunteering sites to do my work. 

But after the 2020 BLM protests against racial injustice, I realized that my advocacy could be more intersectional in acknowledging the connections between mental health and our criminal justice, economic, and health care systems. Especially as a queer Asian person, this realization was really profound and made me extremely passionate about fighting for mental health education and action. 

So today, I focus more on using my writing and public speaking for system-based change (especially in education) as a more effective way to advocate for mental health justice.

Q: How do you use your passion for journalism and debate to fuel your mental health advocacy work?

A: I love this question because the way my three biggest passions (debate, journalism, and mental health advocacy) intersect with one another makes my brain really happy. My passion for journalism these days mainly revolves around figuring out how to simplify and convey complex (but important) issues to audiences. I think Gen Z is such an interesting audience, since we’re so hyperactive and require more evolved forms of journalism to educate us about topics like mental health. Finding the balance of how to convey mental health information and calls-to-action has been both really challenging but rewarding in the work I do. 

I also love journalism due to a deep passion I have for listening to and sharing people’s unique stories. I love interviewing people who have a lived experience with mental health conditions and sharing their adversity, resilience, and journeys through writing. Forming meaningful connections with these people has been very much also connected with the communications skills I’ve learned in debate. Debate has helped me develop the necessary public speaking skills to make speeches and webinars about teen mental health. 

In this way, my three biggest passions have all helped fuel each other and mental health advocacy. 

Q: As an individual, you are doing a lot of meaningful work. But you also advocate for broader, systemic change. Why is that necessary, and how can it impact everyday mental health?

A: As much as I genuinely believe that self-care T-shirts and reposting positive affirmations is done with good intention, I don’t think mental health awareness is complete without genuine action against the violence of systems and policies around us. 

If we look at the root of the youth mental health crisis, much of it is related to different systems that are causing violence to youth. I believe it’s necessary for mental health companies and policymakers to see the effects of the criminal justice system (such as the school-to-prison pipeline), the health care system (the privatization and inaccessibility of mental health care), and also the education system (the pedagogical model that overwhelms students) on youth mental health. Without seeing the root of the problem, not only are we missing out on a chance to make more effective change that will reach everybody, but we’re also trapping ourselves [by providing] Band-Aid solutions that don’t work in the long term to eradicate the source of the problem. 

I also believe that achieving systemic change also requires a lot of unlearning about the world around us. Doing high school debate for the past four years has really allowed me to see a lot of social issues [from] a critical perspective and realize the underlying conditions and environments that create a lot of violence in our communities today. I will admit, it took a lot of unlearning to realize how people who live with mental health conditions and substance abuse disorders aren’t personally at fault for circumstances of being unhoused or unemployed. This realization and education is so necessary for understanding the mental health crisis, as it allows more people to build radical empathy and care for their communities. 

Q: How do you balance your AP classes, leadership roles, and other responsibilities, while also making time for your own mental health?

A: If I’m being honest, I don’t balance it as well as many people think I do. Especially this past year, there have been multiple weeks where I’ve felt very burnt out with all my work and have unfortunately damaged my health a lot with sleep deprivation. 

I beat myself up for not taking care of myself sometimes, as do many other young mental health advocates I know, but my best friend taught me the important life skill of self-forgiveness, the idea that I will forgive myself no matter what and just try to do better next time. 

But that being said, there are a lot of tools I use to juggle everything. On a technical aspect, I use Google Calendar to time-block everything out to the minute and use cool applications like Notion to get things done. I love making friends, so I naturally am really close with all of my teachers and am really comfortable asking for deadlines since they all know how busy I am on a weekly basis. I view a lot of work with Mind Out Loud and Each Mind as mental breaks from AP homework, which makes the long Zoom meetings and multistep projects 10 times more enjoyable. When I do have to do work, I do it in a local coffee shop or my local library to force myself to go into deep focus mode. But when I don’t have to do work, I make time for early morning beach walks or late night to keep myself in check. 

A lot of this is just a result of really knowing my own self and my own study habits along with some meta-work on reading up on the latest research and theories on concentration (one of my favorite books is “Flow” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi). 

Q: What is Each Mind? How did you get involved as Writing Director?

A: Each Mind is a youth-led mental health organization that gives teens creative outlets to express their own mental health journeys and also advocate for mental health action. We mainly do this through art and writing in our magazine issues and blog articles about teen mental health. Each Mind’s work isn’t just beautiful in the sense that the art is gorgeous, but also beautiful in its solidarity since it’s a completely youth-led and volunteer-based effort. I became involved over quarantine in the summer of 2020 because I wanted to find ways to intersect my passion for journalism and mental health. As the Writing Director, I’m mainly in charge of streamlining the process of all our content including our magazine and blog articles and infographics on social media. I also do some writing myself on intersectional mental health topics for previous blog articles and magazine issues. I’ve also had the chance to really build up this organization with creating and mentoring new department directors and leading other outreach and social media projects! My favorite by far has to be Each Hero, which aims to interview international mental health “heroes” on their journeys.

Q: What is Mind Out Loud and how did you get involved as a Social Media Facilitator?

A: In the spring of 2021, I learned about Mind Out Loud, which is also a youth-led organization that puts together a huge annual conference for student mental health. Mind Out Loud is run by Wellness Together, which is a California-based nonprofit that provides free therapy to students in public schools. During my first year as a student representative of Mind Out Loud, I knew I wanted to use social media (arguably the most important platform to Gen Z) to make change in my community. Today, I combine a lot of my passion for journalism through social media infographics and campaigns and also speak at a lot of conferences and webinars to represent Mind Out Loud. 

I adore Mind Out Loud for so many reasons, but my top reasons lately have been my fellow lovely student representatives and Mind Out Loud’s director, Gillian Flowers, who has gone above and beyond in being a friend to each one of us and has done a beautiful job in bringing so many passionate people together to do this important work. 

Q: How do you plan to continue your mental health advocacy after high school?

A: Besides from the fact that I’ve already looked into peer-support programs and mental health advisor positions at every college I plan on applying for, I really hope to continue making my mental health advocacy more system-based. I hope to make the campus of whatever college I attend more just to the resources and accommodations it offers to people who live with mental health conditions, neurodivergent folks, and people who live with a disability. Whether this is through protesting school policies with journalism or speaking at rallies and protests, I want to continue building a more equitable environment wherever I go. And beyond that, I’d love to expand my work more toward mental health policy by continuing my work with the California Department of Education and lawmakers on mental health policy. 

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