I’m Still a Youth (Advocate)

I’m Still a Youth (Advocate)

Smitha Gundavajhala

It’s customary for new staff and team members here at Young Minds Advocacy to write a blog introducing them to the world. It makes sense as a practice because we’re an outward facing organization, and to begin the journey of advocacy here is to begin to flex your voice.

I wrote my first introductory blog as a YMA intern in 2015. What started out as a diagnosis of depression has since transformed into a challenging and rich journey to unpack my own mental health, and to honor the axes of my identity that inform it. As a student, I advocated for students on campus to receive confidential spaces for peer counseling, remote counseling options and culturally informed mental health care. I’ve found that my most powerful advocacy, though, comes from my own truth — not, as journalism trained me, the stories I tell on behalf of others. If advocacy is speaking from one’s truth, then my advocacy journey has been a struggle to pin down my own.

I’ve written several versions of this blog since I joined YMA full-time as a Communications Associate a few months ago — each addressing different axes of my identity. My Indian-American identity has informed my experience of the world, and so have my identities as a woman, as a college student, and as a young person. The fact that the drafts of this blog have changed so much in such a short time, though, best highlights the identity that my work here has hinged on: that of a Transition-Age Youth.

To clarify, Transition Age Youth (TAY) roughly span the ages 16-26, but the term more specifically describes the transition out of child-serving systems, and the experience of learning to navigate an often bureaucratic and hostile world. College youth fall squarely in this range, and their transition from grade school to postsecondary education is often fraught with the same issues most TAY experience: inaccessible systems, stress, economic instability, and a lack of institutional support. Many of these describe my experience transitioning from childhood to adulthood.

Starting this job has accelerated my personal growth in ways that I did not expect; in a short time, I have gained awareness of how the advocacy world works, and wisdom in taking care of myself. There are also tradeoffs: I trade the flexibility of college with the accountability of a paid position. When I get to the office, I trade my beat-up brown jacket for a blazer.

Looking “older,” I’ve found, does not actually change the fact that I’m still a youth. While my age allows me to legally access adult privileges, I know I am still growing because I still need to ask for help. I’ve had to grow into protocols and practices that still don’t fully make sense to me as a young person, but which the emerging adult in me tells me not to question.

I grapple with the intergenerational nature of my work, wondering when I can be trusted to lead instead of follow.

I’m still a youth.

At this time in my life, I am also experiencing growing pains of positionality — not viewed as a youth by my fellow young people, not fully viewed as an adult by adults. This especially has been frustrating, as it hinders my ability to occupy either identity, though I am unequivocally both. As a paid staff member, using jargon and professional language, I often present as an adult. The very growing up I’ve done to be accepted as an adult, I’ve found, can damage my credibility with fellow young people.

These are the realities: that young people are often lied to, exploited simply because they don’t yet have full knowledge of the adult world. Many of the young people that enter mental health advocacy work have unaddressed childhood trauma, have marginalized identities that are vulnerable to multiple kinds of traumas, and have trust issues from being passed through institutions. When young people so often distrust adults and the world, where do I sit as a young adult?

In a few years, I won’t be viewed as a young person, or even as a Transition Age Youth. That’s why it’s so important to me now to call out what it’s like to be young, and also how systems can work with, respect and center young people. The youth advocates I’ve worked with are powerful, outspoken, and have transformed their pain into wisdom. They will be the change makers of tomorrow, so my request is that you invest in them today.

When I was an intern, I wrote in my introductory blog about resilience. I was getting at the idea that resilience is not just about neuroplasticity, but also about having support networks that champion your existence and pass you the microphone. Our work as youth mental health advocates is incomplete without the voices of young people — I urge you all to insist that youth voices are at the table. Insist that we prioritize young people most impacted by our systems, that we not edit or speak over them, and that we pay attention to systems that do not support them. Insist that young people are deserving of quality mental health care, and more broadly, of mental health.

And when we speak, listen.

Learn more about Smitha’s skills and experience by visiting our staff page.

About the Author:

Smitha Gundavajhala
Smitha Gundavajhala is a Communications Associate at Young Minds Advocacy, and was previously a Law Clerk and Policy Intern with YMA. As a student mental health advocate at UC Berkeley, she worked to integrate remote counseling, confidential peer counseling spaces, and cultural and structural competency in institutional spaces. As a second-generation Indian American, she believes that both mental health and advocacy are simultaneously personal and community-informed, and honors both processes in her work.