Youth Mental Health Storytelling Through Photos

Youth Mental Health Storytelling Through Photos: Harry in Lake

Guest blogger: Katie Linsky Shaw, photojournalist

Over the past couple of years, the media has finally started to report on the youth mental health crisis that has existed for decades. Yay, us…am I right? (Here’s where a very dramatic eye roll fits nicely.) Yes, they’re finally talking about this very real issue that’s been ignored and played down, but so much more needs to be done. 

We know that, in the past, there were some very bad players who purported to help youth with mental health crises. These abuses led to clearer and more effective regulations. We feel for those who suffered and whose stories have since been told. But the truth is, those stories of past abuses are hurting current efforts to help our children. Those stories get attention because they’re shocking but they are also teaching families in crisis that mental health programs are dangerous. Frankly, this needs to stop.

The more recent news stories I’ve read on the youth mental health crisis have been informative. But for those of us who have gone through this crisis or are currently in the midst of it, we don’t need statistics telling us how many kids visit the emergency room each night for mental health issues or how many teens report feeling depressed. We’ve lived it. 

We’ve sat in ERs for hours with our scared and sad children waiting for a room to open. We know the ER is the worst place to take a child in crisis because of its high energy, loud noise, and chaos. During my son’s first visit to the ER, we waited for a room along with an illegal drug user who still had a needle stuck in his arm. During his second visit to the ER a year later, he was immediately placed in a room only to have a woman screaming on the floor outside his door. Both of these experiences were deeply upsetting and scary. We know our kids are depressed and we know there has to be a better solution. We don’t need percentages and charts to remind us.

My family’s experience on this mental health “journey” began when my son started having issues in middle school which continued through his junior year of high school. There were many calls to therapists, expensive psychiatric visits, unnecessary medication and those two ER visits that included two, week-long inpatient stays. We finally learned about educational consultants, wilderness therapy and therapeutic programs but not until his second inpatient stay. All of these saved his life. He’s now a freshman in college –
happy, healthy and with the necessary coping skills. 

Since then, I’ve wanted desperately to give back and help others. I’m a professional photographer with a background in writing and reporting for publications. I decided this was my way to make a difference, by sharing the many stories of this very layered and life-changing issue. 

I’ve started an ongoing photojournalism project about the youth mental health crisis. My goal is to cover this issue with stories from families currently going through the process, programs helping our kids, efforts in schools like mental health clubs, and highlighting what’s lacking in the community when it comes to serving our youth. My hope is that this project will gain the attention of national publications and help change the way youth mental health is portrayed in the media. So instead of simply reporting on the issue with numbers and data, I plan to show the human-interest side of this issue with feature stories, profiles and detailed, non-fiction, story-telling. There are so many stories to tell on this complex, multi-faceted issue. I hope by sharing these stories about the “lives behind the numbers,” I can educate others on this very real problem while informing families who are in the midst of a mental health crisis what help is out there.

I’ll be posting stories and photos at least once a month on the project website. If you or anyone you know might be interested in participating, please let me know at Names, faces, and personally identifying information can be kept private, if that is preferred. I just want to get the stories out there.

Change begins at the bottom with grassroots efforts like this and The Youth Mental Health Project. Please help by reading, sharing the website on your social media posts, and reaching out with story ideas. Together, we can keep the conversation going.