Something to say: Powerful self-expression supports mental health in teens

"Our kids are suffering," is how one Cincinnati professional summed up the mental health landscape that teens and younger are navigating today. The markers of a healthy emotional life were already trending the wrong way before the pandemic, but the isolation and trauma caused by that event led to a surge in rates of depression, anxiety, and mental health emergencies nationally, including suicide. In 2021, three leading U.S. medical associations declared a national emergency in youth mental health.  

It's an urgent problem, and in Greater Cincinnati, leaders from the medical, social services, education, and philanthropic communities are collaborating to work on the issue. Parents, medical providers, care givers, mental health professionals, and youths themselves will be part of the solution. This story is the fifth in the Soapbox Cincinnati series, Amplifying Youth Voices, which raises awareness of the problem and looks at possible community-based answers to it.

"Poetry is the one place where people can speak their original human mind."

No less a poet than Allen Ginsberg, an icon of the '50s and 60's counterculture movement, wrote that.

"It is the outlet for people to say in public what is known in private," he continued.

That’s still true today, as a half a dozen teen poets demonstrated over the weekend. They stepped up to the microphone in front of a group of peers and adults and laid bare raw emotions communicated through carefully chosen, powerful words – poetry. They competed for up to $400 in prize money at a youth poetry slam at Northside organized by nonprofit WordPlay. But what may have been more valuable than the money was the opportunity to share their thoughts and feelings in a creative, powerful way before a supportive crowd.

As teens and younger are bombarded by a one-way firehose of advertising, Facebook posts, Instagram photos, TikTok videos, text messages, parental demands, homework, and more, it can seem that it’s been forgotten that kids have something to say too.

“Often times when we’re young, we’re silent,” says Faith Lewis, a youth organizer of the poetry slam.

As the community and the nation try to come to terms with a youth mental health epidemic, giving voice to teens and creating ways for them to express themselves is seen as one way to head off depression, anxiety, even suicide.    

“We want youth to feel empowered to not only to share their voice, their story, their experience, but to make meaningful and lasting connections with peers, mentors, and the community,” says Amy Tuttle, WordPlay’s executive director.

Whether through writing, visual art, video, photography or some other medium, sharing their story in a non-judgmental setting among peers builds self-confidence, creates connections, wards off isolation and loneliness, and fosters engagement with the world around them.

That’s backed up by studies that show that building self-esteem through authentic self expression protects teens from developing depression and anxiety not only for the near-term but for years to come.

“These kids are the next generation of adults,” says Tyran Stallings, founder and executive director of The DAD Initiative. “This is why it’s vitally important that we get them in a place where they can express themselves without resorting to things that are detrimental to themselves.”

One of the efforts of The DAD Initiative (Directing Adolescent Development) is a youth-led podcast. Still under development, the program will use the electronic medium to give students a platform to share their own stories. “We have to teach kids to express themselves in a productive way,” he says.

That’s the mission of a number of Cincinnati-area nonprofit organizations that have become more focused on supporting emotional health in teens, including Cincinnati Black Theatre Company and A Picture’s Worth.

I just want a chance
to fly

I want a chance
to cry

- Teen poet Kamya, 14

At WordPlay, the role self expression plays in adolescents navigating their journeys in healthy ways became so central to its mission that its board revised its mission statement to reflect that.  “It's really become more and more of our focus,” Tuttle says. “Part of our motivation or inspiration is that people were also asking for us to support them in this specific way.”

WordPlay is a nonprofit founded in 2012 that works with schools and other organizations to carry out programs meant to be safe spaces where youth can contemplate and express their personal narratives and be exposed to others from their age group.

Most WordPlay classes involve narrative writing, poetry, or spoken word expositions. There’s often a collaborative project involving the class or a small group combining their stories to make a collective narrative that could eventually become a theater piece that is performed.

Led by teaching artists, the students work at their own pace, but usually toward a larger goal. “In general, they're working from a personal session to a collaborative piece,” Tuttle says. “Sometimes that happens in one session, sometimes that’s a six-week process.”

Some students are not adept at writing, and when that’s the case, the teaching artists can use drawing or oral storytelling as a path toward the written word. “We often take a slow approach to writing,” Tuttle says. “We actually find that we have a pretty significant literacy impact on schools because students just need to build some confidence around their capacity to express themselves.”

WordPlay programs also encourage students to look ahead and think about their futures. “What does a hopeful, vibrant, exciting future look like, and what are some of the things between here and there,” she says.
It’s not just a dream
It’s believing

- Teen poet Anastasia, 16

WordPlay is also collaborating with Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, Beech Acres, and Regal Rhythms Poetry LLC on a suicide prevention program for both students and parents that uses writing, spoken word, and visual storytelling to uncover potential suicidal thoughts and if needed, connect students and parents to mental health resources. The program is being piloted at DePaul Cristo Rey High School in Clifton.

In some of the schools they work in, WordPlay staff have created safe spaces in their studios or writers' rooms, “a safe and consistent place that they can go to have a reflective and supportive experience with a safe adult,” Tuttle says. “It's really that simple.”

Students may write there, or work on another piece they are developing, “But it's all centered toward supporting their needs in the moment,” she says.

Since the pandemic, Tuttle and WordPlay staff have seen an uptick in students talking about suicide. “That's part of what has informed the deepening of our work,” she says. There’s also been an increase in disclosures about abuse at home, and of fear of violence in their communities. “We're seeing a lot more students worried about and aware of their own mental health, the state of their neighborhoods and communities and whether or not they're safe,” she says.

And they’re worried about the future. “They're really want to see that there's something for them to look forward to,” she says.
Everything I said I was
I’m not.
My health grew better
When I found
that being perfect
Wasn’t meant to be.

- Teen poet Jamyah, 14

Early on, as he was working with students to develop the podcast, Stallings also discovered effects from the pandemic isolation, and the descent into the alternate-reality world of social media that students experienced as schools were closed for months. Their communicating skills were diminished, some didn’t make eye contact, and they generally lacked the ability to converse. He had to change his approach to the project.

“We found ourselves doing a lot of reconstructive and rudimentary work around language, building a vocabulary, the nuances of body language, how that helps others to find comfort in conversation,” he says.    

Lack of good communication skills can lead to mental health problems and to problems in the community, Stallings says. “If you can't communicate, then you'll find other ways to express yourself,” he says. “When we find kids having fights and arguments, maybe they just don't have the right tools to say how they feel.”

Stallings’ team works with several high schools, as well as elementary and junior highs, and foster homes and group homes, mostly with youth whose family incomes are below poverty levels. “We're trying to give those kids an opportunity to share their voice,” he says.

While that’s healthy, it can also be frightening. At the slam, teen poets stand before a microphone at the front of a room full of waiting friends and parents. One paused for a minute or two before needing to leave the room to compose herself. When she returned, another minute or two passed before she could begin:

Your love consumes me
Your smile warms my whole body
Making me want to smile too.

The room is supportive and cheers and applauds each of the poets. It’s a poetry slam, not a library reading.

“There’s some emotions that come out when this mike is front of you. We want to welcome that,” says MoPoetry Phillips, a spoken word artist and WordPlay’s community engagement director.

And welcoming, authentic self-expression benefits any teen navigating the complicated labyrinth of social expectations and peer pressure. 

The Amplifying Youth Voices series is made possible with support from Interact for HealthTo learn more about Interact for Health's commitment to mental health and well-being, please visit here.

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by David Holthaus.

David Holthaus is an award-winning journalist and a Cincinnati native. When not writing or editing, he's likely to be bicycling, hiking, reading, or watching classic movies.